7 Wildly Unpopular Policies That Would Get America Back on Track
Would the cure be worse than the disease?
“And what physicians say about disease is applicable here: that at the beginning a disease is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been treated or recognized at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. The same thing occurs in affairs of state; for by recognizing from afar the diseases that are spreading in the state (which is a gift given only to a prudent ruler), they can be cured quickly; but when they are not recognized and are left to grow to the extent that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any cure.” — Niccolo Machiavelli
What’s going on with America today is a good news, bad news situation.
The good news is that the problems we have as a country seem at least to be theoretically fixable. Not entirely, not perfectly, but the bulk of the issues this nation has could be gotten under control before they drag America down to depression, secession, revolution, or civil war.
However, the bad news is that as Nicolo Machiavelli noted more than 500 years ago, the fixes for our problems would be nearly impossible to implement because they’d be so unpopular. In the case of the seven policies we’re about to discuss, it’s hard to imagine any of them ever becoming the law of the land in the foreseeable future. All of them are either lukewarm in popularity on one side and passionately hated by the other or widely despised across the board. In fact, these policies would be either so painful or seemingly unfair that I’d be surprised if even 25% of my own readers would agree with most of them, and if you guys aren’t on board, well, who would be? It’s sort of like being seriously ill. Nobody volunteers to do chemotherapy or dialysis just for the fun it. They do it because they’re very sick and they believe it’s the only way to get better. At present, most Americans would probably see most of the cures suggested here as worse than the disease. I suspect the time will come in the next couple of decades when that will no longer be true, but by then, we’ll likely be too green around the gills for even these painful cures to have a meaningful impact.
1) A Balanced Budget Amendment: The United States is almost 30 trillion dollars in debt and contrary to what popular opinion seems to be, we are headed towards an economic nightmare that will make the Great Depression look like a day at Disneyland unless we get our spending under control. It is true that a Balanced Budget Amendment that actually had teeth to it would prevent us from creating huge new programs or spending massive amounts in a crisis like the housing crash or the pandemic. However, do we need any huge, new programs? I’d say, “no” and if we did, we should cut money from other parts of our incredibly bloated budget to pay for it. As to floating the country during an economic crisis, there are two ways to look at that. The first is the one that we’ve embraced, which says “Spend as much as it takes, soften the blow, and don’t worry about the debt and inflation that will result, because, in the long run, we’re all dead anyway.” The other, which is the smarter, but less politically popular way to look at it is, “It’s worth temporary suffering and losing some poorly run businesses to have sound money, low inflation, and long term economic stability.” The first way guarantees a softer landing the next time there’s a major economic crisis. The second makes it much more likely the country will still exist and be economically strong 50 years from now. Which is more important?
2) Ending Gerrymandering: Over the last few decades, Americans have both become more ideologically segregated geographically AND have become more polarized in their views. These two conditions are self-reinforcing and seem unlikely to reverse in the foreseeable future. The problem with this is that it has created a set of incentives that make the country almost ungovernable. Both sides are heavily penalized by their own base for cooperating with the other side, so instead, they simply block everything the other side tries to do and then wait for the American people to become frustrated and put them back into power. In the interim, the president attempts to govern with executive orders that are often legally dubious, and which can often be easily overturned by the other party when they get into power. Intelligent governance is impossible under these circumstances.
The best way to address this would be by ending gerrymandering and trying to dramatically increase the number of house districts that could be conceivably won by either party. There is no easy way to completely “fix” the problem especially since Democrats tend to cluster in large cities while Republicans are spread out across wider geographic areas, but you don’t need every district to be a toss-up. You just need a big enough block of politicians from purple districts in the House to create a significant pool of people from both sides who will seriously consider cooperating on legislation. People can like that or not like that, but the unfortunate reality is that the country is essentially ungovernable without some block of politicians on each side that is willing to play “Let’s make a deal.”
3) Increasing the Age and Payments for Social Security and Medicare: In 1940, Social Security was .29% of the budget. In 1960 it was 12.58%. In 2000, it was 22.88%. In 2021, it was almost 25% of the budget. In 2018, Medicare made up another 15% of the federal budget and that number is going nowhere but up. It’s also worth noting that the “trust funds” you hear discussed on the news are just numbers on a ledger. In actuality, all the money paid into both programs has already been spent so what they are really talking about could be more accurately described as “IOUs.” This is an enormous problem because we’re talking about two programs that make up 40% of the budget that are now running in the red every year. Social Security was 65 billion dollars in the hole last year. Meanwhile, the government went 696 billion underwater on Medicare in 2021. What this means is that we already need to borrow or print three-quarters of a trillion dollars+ every year to pay for these programs. At this point, we’d need to significantly increase payments and dramatically increase the age at which people become eligible to have a chance for the program to exist in its current form in another 20 years. Given that a lot of people depend on these programs and feel like they’ve been promised this money by the federal government, that’s something we SHOULD do. Unfortunately, it would be so politically unpopular, it’s hard to imagine any politician in either party making the hard decisions it would take to save these programs rather than just kicking the can down the road and waiting for the whole system to collapse.
4) Repeal the 17th Amendment: The 17th Amendment, which was passed in 1913, allowed voters to choose senators instead of leaving it to state legislatures. This turned out to be one of the costliest mistakes in American history because it was one of the biggest drivers in moving power from the states to Washington, DC. Allowing state legislatures to choose the Senators once again from their states would have a number of important benefits, beginning with the fact that it would shift power away from DC back towards the states. It would also limit the power of radical interest groups to influence politics and get more Americans focused on local issues instead of national politics. The Founders believed that checks and balances along with the decentralization of power were critical to good governance and American history has proven them correct. Giving more power to the states and less to DC and interest groups would be a Paul Bunyan-sized step in the right direction.