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Where Have All the Big Ideas Gone?

Some bold proposals--perfect for either party--could create genuine change.

August 15, 2004|Ted Halstead | Ted Halstead is president and CEO of the New America Foundation and author of "The Real State of the Union."

Each era in American history is defined by a couple of big ideas: the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, Social Security, the Marshall Plan or the race to space. Such major social or economic innovations are usually advanced by our political leaders in response to national turning points. Few would disagree that the United States has reached another historical juncture. Where, then, have all the big -- and good -- ideas gone?

The paucity of innovative thinking is particularly evident in this presidential campaign. President Bush has a couple of big ideas -- remaking the Middle East and privatizing Social Security -- but they are proving to be either unworkable or unaffordable. As for Sen. John F. Kerry, he has turned timidity into an art form.

So here are seven big ideas for improving our national condition, each of which defies the conventional political spectrum and could be ripe for the picking by either party:

* Every baby a trust-fund baby. Just as the nation broadened the ownership of land in the 19th century through the Homestead Act, and of houses in the 20th century through the mortgage interest tax deduction, expanding the ownership of financial assets should be the cause of the 21st century. British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the example by championing a law that endows every British newborn with financial assets from birth. We should follow suit and inaugurate a new era of universal capitalism in the United States.

* Universal coverage for universal responsibility. Why not approach health insurance like car insurance by making it mandatory? Coupled with public subsidies for those who need them, mandatory insurance could cover all 43 million uninsured Americans and lower the cost of coverage for those who are insured (by broadening the risk pool to include the young and healthy, the 18- to 34-year-olds who are the most likely to be uninsured), all while costing the government less than Kerry's plan, which is said to reach 27 million uninsured.

* Tax consumption, not work. You would never know it by listening to politicians, but more than 70% of American families pay more in payroll taxes than in any other tax. Yet no other tax does more to retard job creation or to reduce take-home pay, especially among low-income workers. By eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a progressive national consumption tax, we could create a lot more jobs and generate a lot more savings -- thereby solving our two greatest economic problems at once.

* End all farm subsidies. Our farm subsidies are vestiges of the past. They harm farmers and the environment, create agricultural gluts, retard global free trade, hurt Third World countries and cost taxpayers $20 billion a year. By ending these subsidies, we could not only alleviate these various problems but free up the resources to, say, endow every child from birth with financial assets. While we're at it, let's end all forms of corporate welfare, which would free up an additional $50 billion for better uses.

* Family-friendly workplaces. Although the traditional family is no longer the norm, our workplaces have yet to adapt, penalizing those who need flexibility to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, often by depriving them of good jobs and basic benefits. This two-tier labor market should be ended by making basic benefits citizen-based instead of employer-based and by giving all workers the flexibility of today's part-time workers, along with the benefit security of full-time workers.

* A race to energy independence. It is a cliche that the United States should pursue energy independence with the same vigor that once fueled its race to space. Yet we lack a viable plan to light this new fire. The answer may lie in another recent revolution -- the biotech one -- in which a competition between private industry and a public consortium greatly accelerated the mapping of the human genome. Why not apply a similar model to energy efficiency by funding a high-profile contest between public and private parties?

* Building a global middle class. At a time of a ballooning trade deficit and global overcapacity, the U.S. needs other countries to consume more and to export less. The best way to accomplish both is by exporting the middle-class development model (such as 30-year mortgages) that created mass affluence in our own nation half a century ago. By recasting the globalization debate around the overarching goal of building a global middle class, we could promote prosperity and stability at home and abroad.

A presidential election offers candidates to our highest office a rare chance to step back and think big. By championing bold ideas, they could reframe the national debate, rally undecided voters and, if elected, create a mandate for genuine change.

It is not too late for Bush or Kerry to seize this opportunity.

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