I promised additional thoughts about last week’s State of the Union address. My thoughts relate to how poorly our country thinks deeply at the intersection of law and progress. (I got close to this subject in Law: It Doesn’t Serve Our Interests on December 21 of last year.)
President Obama touched on several issues when he addressed the first of his four big questions: how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? He mentioned early education and post-secondary education He talked about Social Security, Medicare and retirement, and he even brought up the Affordable Care Act. And he promised an effort to get rid of outdated regulations. Alas, the president did not get close to where my head is.
The Affordable Care Act is a good example of a law which solves for aligning law and progress. The law gets plenty of grief; without it, though, I’d face a choice: no insurance or no solo practice. (Pre-Obamacare, I was uninsurable due to what are minor and common ailments.) So Obamacare has as one of its signal benefits the fact that it permits people like me to work in the more productive ways, uninhibited by what ought to be a non-work-related issue like health insurance.
Let’s talk about the environment. Energy prices are at historic lows. I think that’s good, and it certainly feels good when I fill up. If we had a carbon tax, however, we could moderate the benefit a bit and generate billions and billions of dollars for, oh gosh, infrastructure, research into new energy technologies, environmental cleanup, or some other public good for which there is no easy way to generate private money.
Let’s talk about drugs. Our drug development regimen rewards the development of pharmaceuticals for regular, long-term use. Not so much is there a financial benefit for finding bacteria-resistant antibiotics. Thus, we have a system which cares for restless legs, but does not provide adequate odds that someone will survive a Staphylococcus infection.
Finally, let’s talk taxes. People on the right advance tax plans so simple that returns will fit on the back of a postcard. I support simplicity, for sure, but we won’t get it. Every complication in the tax code is a benefit for a corporation, a rich person, or an industry, all of which are bought and paid for with campaign contributions.*
Campaign financing and Congress are big villains here. The need to raise huge sums of money to get elected and stay in office has given us a part-time Congress, and a Congress which loses many talented people because when they reach their “dialing for dollars” limits. (Retiring Congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) wrote Confessions of a Congressman for the New York Times on January 8. He’s reached his limit!)
Election cycles further complicate the situation. A House of Representatives which is elected every two years cannot provide 2016-quality governance. Without the need to raise money constantly, the problem might be lessened or even avoided but, effectively, the part-time Congress only works for about 18 months out of every two years now.
Then there’s the fact that senators and congressmen must attend to their constituents, both because that is a part of their job and because if they don’t they will not get re-elected. There is no particular reason why a Congressman’s office ought to be the interface for someone with a Social Security problem. “That’s how we do it” is not an adequate answer.
Notwithstanding all of my comments about how our system fails us, the really big problem here is us. Too many among us—gentle readers, I suspect you can all exclude yourselves, mostly—can only see, understand, and appreciate matters to the extent by which they affect them. The notion that Obamacare has freed people from unproductive job settings is not on most people’s radar screens because, well, they have a job and don’t want to quit. We’re living in times during which the individual has been elevated at the expense of the collective, and we’re paying for it dearly.
*The postcard plans are insincere, for postcard-plan advocates also want more breaks for business. They are also way short on progressivity, which makes them very unfair but very attractive to wealthy people.