Five Issues American Politics Should Confront, But Won’t
It’s the election season, so once again, we are talking about abortion. Worse, we are talking about contraception now, and the extent to which “God” should be part of an American party’s platform. Truly, if someone from another planet or someone who has been living under a rock looked at our election-season haranguing, that person would get the impression that America has no problems to speak of, what with so many people worrying so much about other people’s genitals and the respect accorded or not accorded to their imaginary sky-being of choice.
And yet America has got problems — big ones. The powers that be, as well as much of the American public, aren’t interested in them, because it’s much easier and more fun to draw in supporters by tapping into something inflammatory, like sex, or something lurid, like extra sexy, guilt-free sex. In fact, as I’ve written previously, ignoring pressing issues in favor of obsessing over sex and such is one of the weaknesses of democratic regimes.
In a perfect world, here are five things I would really want politicians and voters to focus on:
American highways are ailing. American rail is dying. American bridges are crumbling. (And still people scream for less government.)
As for commuter rail in American cities — that is, in those that have it at all — it is appalling. The New York subway system defies words. Dark, grimy, smelly, leaky, poorly lighted and ventilated, with slow, lurching, unreliable trains, sudden and byzantine schedule changes and machinery that screeches so piercingly, it could bring down the walls of Jericho, the subway would be a profound embarrassment to a Third World backwater. In a city that demurely bills itself the Capital of the World, its horribleness is positively stupefying. Commuter rail in other major cities is not as shocking, but I can’t bring myself to describe it as “better”; it’s merely somewhat less terrible.
Highway and rail construction is extensive and never ending — though it rarely produces any visible results.
A light morning drizzle is sufficient to create numerous gridlocks and to trigger massive commuter rail and bus delays.
The protocol for handling highway accidents and car breakdowns is stupid: a minor fender-bender results in lane closures and exhausting traffic jams that last for hours.
The shipping rail system is woefully insufficient, and American highways — as outdated as they are — are clogged by far too many trucks.
I’ve travelled to much of the industrialized world; in my experience, American transportation infrastructures are among the worst. And compared to Western Europe, they are so abysmal, the whole thing makes me want to cry from frustration and embarrassment.
When you spend at least an hour of your day sitting in traffic, it should occur to you why the United States is the world’s second biggest polluter. Sure, I’m a “tree-hugger”, and some conservative will roll his eyes at this questioning why we should “restrict ourselves” for the sake of grasshoppers and such, but the truth is, by fixing the infrastructure, we would be less restricted AND we would pollute a lot less.
I am not even talking more roads here. What needs to be done is to institute a better, more efficient maintenance system, as well as a better police protocol for dealing with accidents, and to update and expand heavy rail for shipment, maybe even commuting. City commuter rail needs to be completely overhauled, for the most part.
So what’s the problem? Anything that has to do with rail will have to be heavily subsidized by the public. There is no other way. It is near-impossible to make a railroad profitable. But it is an investment nonetheless, one that is likely to be offset by whatever you save on environmental clean-up and the costs of accidents, traffic jam delays and road maintenance. Shifting a considerable amount of goods and people traffic to the rail will, of course, have the effect of fucking over those who make cars; better road maintenance and fewer traffic jams will mean reduced profits for the oil industry and road contractors. Needless to say, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will go there, the former for ideological reasons, the latter because hey, people need to remain on friendly terms with Big Money, amirite?
America’s obsolete, decaying transportation infrastructure is one of the country’s biggest problems — seriously. And yet, when was the last time you heard a pundit or a politician even mention it?The Power Grid
When foreign friends visit the US for the first time, they invariably express bewilderment at the sight of roads brimmed by wooden poles (many of them leaning this way and that), with bundles of cables hanging off them. This is, basically, early 20th century technology, and it is hopelessly obsolete. You won’t see this in any other industrialized country. The exposed parts of the grid aren’t just unsightly, they are vulnerable by virtue of their exposure to the elements. Even moderately inclement weather routinely results in hundreds, if not thousands of homes, losing power and remaining dark and cold for days. As with the previous issue, it is utterly incomprehensible to me why people don’t seem interested in updating America’s clearly outdated power grid, or why it is not even on the political radar.
Okay, why is medicine in this country so expensive? It costs about double its equivalent in Western Europe. Before you say “lawsuits”, please realize that payments for medical malpractice have been steadily shrinking over the past twenty years, while premiums and insurance companies’ profits have been growing. The ACA is well and all, but believe me, it’s just a bandaid unless we get to the bottom of the question why health care costs so damned much, and fix the underlying problem. My strong suspicion is that it is the involvement of HMO’s that drives the costs to such insane heights — and if this is true, then the ACA, by padding HMO’s rather than sidelining them, will only make health care more expensive in the long run, not less. A better regulation of the insurance industry is needed, so as to reduce it contribution to the costs of medical care.
I am a radical when it comes to IP laws: I believe most of them do more harm than good and should be repealed. I realize most people would probably disagree with that position. However, I believe even moderates here should acknowledge that there is a problem with patients being issued too easily, with laws that statutorily impose penalties that are out of all proportion with the harm suffered, and with business actors using IP litigation as a business tool, designed to crush competition, especially boutiques and start-ups. IP laws in this country stifle innovation, favor big business, and encourage frivolous litigation. As such, they are in dire need of major reform. At the very least, criteria for obtaining patents and trademarks should be made stricter, statutes awarding punitive damages should be either repealed or considerably narrowed, laws should be enacted that immunize individuals who market their products under their own given names, and stiff penalties should be imposed against parties that engage in opportunistic IP litigation and their lawyers. And, no IP protection should be available to products or scientific literature that are based on taxpayer-funded research.
This has become a dance. Every election cycle, politicians of all levels promise to do something about education. At best, it means throwing money at meaningless activities that will benefit no one except bureaucrats, but mostly, this is just campaign-season posturing. The purpose of talking about schools in politics is to make a candidate look human. Look how fluffy and cuddly is, he cares about kids! Meanwhile, there are serious structural problems with American primary and secondary educations, owing, unfortunately, mainly to American federalism.
The federal government supposedly has something to do with schools, while states and counties have a bit more to do with schools, but for the most part, schools are administered by small, local “districts”, of which any given state (usually) has hundreds. Rhode Island, America’s smallest state, has around 50 school districts in only 5 counties. New Jersey, another very small state, but one that’s the most densely populated in the country, has over 600 school districts (in only 21 counties).
The bulk of public schools’ funding comes from local property taxes, which of course translates into vast differences between schools. There are schools with small classes and space-age technologies, and schools where ceilings leak and students have to share decades-old textbooks. Thus, class inequalities start literally just outside the cradle, and children from poor and undereducated families, who depend on the public school system the most for some window to success in life, find themselves in an institution that acts primarily as a holding pen for kids and offers little in the way of academic opportunity.
Even more troublingly, the current system that runs schools through a combination of federal, state, county and district organizations results in monstrously bloated, overlapping bureaucracies that consume a very large share of the school budget.
The fact that schools are operated mostly by districts means that parents have a tremendous sway not only over the curriculum, but grading as well. Local administrations, for their part, have a far greater incentive to keep the parents happy by keeping the courses light and the grades generous rather than maintain a challenging, age-appropriate curriculum and fair grading policies. The result is that schools impart little academic knowledge, even in affluent districts.
There is the added problem, of which I have written previously, that the more local a given government is, the more likely it is to be reactionary and staffed with crazy people. The reason is clear — the higher up you go, from the locality level, to the county level, to the state level, to the federal level, the more it is important to appeal to a broad range of interests and opinions by essentially being a moderate. But in small localities, insane people actually get elected, to school boards among other things, and hired to fill district positions — and it is small localities that have the most authority over how schools are run. This is why it seems like schools constantly do shockingly offensive things, like organize prayer meetings, or enact regulations that allow for strip-searching kids caught taking a dose of perfectly legal, innocuous, over-the-counter medication, or, alternatively, lean on teachers on behalf of parents in order to spare their precious “kids” some well-deserved penalty.
So what is to be done here? I fear that my views on this would probably be very unpopular, but I believe schools should be administered jointly by federal and state governments, while lower-level administrations should be eliminated altogether. Schools should also be equitably funded, so that children of all socio-economic backgrounds have comparable chances at academic success. A certain core curriculum, consisting of basic subjects like English, math, the sciences, history and foreign languages, must be federally determined and mandatory. State boards of education should be able to add to, but not subtract from, this core curriculum. (And, these additions cannot have the effect of undermining the core curriculum, so no creationism.) Teachers should be employed at the state or federal level, not by small localities. These measures would, I believe, save money, improve the quality of primary and secondary education and ensure more uniform discipline and grading policies.
And that concludes my angry rant for today. Happy Friday!