We Can Get Out of Th­ese Ruts

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Bill Bradley

Ev­ery time I talk to peo­ple who have no health care, or to fam­i­lies with­out the means to find a good ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren, or to pen­sion­ers who have lost their pen­sions, I am re­minded that we have lost our ca­pac­ity to imag­ine some­thing bet­ter for our coun­try. But we don’t have to keep do­ing things that aren’t work­ing.

In the same spirit, we don’t have to ac­cept our con­tin­ued de­pen­dence on oil as an im­mutable fact of life. Nor do we have to live with our coun­ter­pro­duc­tive tax code. There are good al­ter­na­tives, if we can over­come the paucity of imag­i­na­tion that has af­flicted us for too long. But we can break out of the ruts we are in only by im­prov­ing our pol­i­tics.

Given that real power rests with the peo­ple and not the elected, the most dis­cour­ag­ing thing about our cur­rent pol­i­tics is that fewer than half of those el­i­gi­ble to vote did so in 1996 and 2000, and only 61 per­cent voted in the heav­ily con­tested pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2004. Off- year con­gres­sional elec­tion turnout ranges from 35 to 40 per­cent.

The In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Elec­toral As­sis­tance com­pared voter turnout in na­tional elec­tions from 1945 to 1998 in 140 coun­tries. Italy ranked first, with 92 per­cent, and the United States was 139th, with an av­er­age turnout of 48 per­cent. Why is voter turnout so low here?

There is a prac­ti­cal rea­son. Tues­day is an in­con­ve­nient day for vot­ing. Imag­ine men and women who have to be at work by 8 in the morn­ing and who get docked or pos­si­bly fired if they’re late. They awake an hour early to get to the polls, which gen­er­ally open at 7 a. m. The long line moves slowly; some have to leave for work be­fore they reach the vot­ing booth. By the time they re­turn at the end of the day — if they make it through traf­fic and ar­range for some­one to pick up their kids from af­ter- school ac­tiv­i­ties — they may find even longer lines of peo­ple like them try­ing to vote af­ter work.

Why do we make a cit­i­zen’s most sa­cred demo­cratic duty so in­con­ve­nient? Why Tues­day? I’ll bet you can’t tell me. Be hon­est.

Tues­day was es­tab­lished as Elec­tion Day in 1845 so that all Amer­i­cans could vote on the same day. So why Tues­day? Satur­day was a work­day. Sun­day was the Sab­bath. It could take a whole day to travel to the polls in that horse- and- buggy age, so Mon­day was out. That left Tues­day and Wed­nes­day. Wed­nes­day in many places was mar­ket day, so by de­fault — Tues­day.

It’s still Tues­day, but the horse and buggy are gone and the two- earner fam­ily has ar­rived, jug­gling stress­ful pro­fes­sional and fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. While 94 per­cent of those sur­veyed in a joint poll in the fall of 2005 by the Tar­rance Group and Lake, Snell, Perry, Mer­min/ De­ci­sion Re­search said that “ vot­ing is an im­por­tant civic duty that ev­ery­one should do,” more than a third of those who usu­ally don’t vote said that the rea­son is be­cause they are “ too busy/ didn’t have time/ work­ing.”

The an­ti­dote is to make vot­ing eas­ier. Elec­tion Day should be moved to Satur­day and Sun­day. If we give peo­ple two week­end days, turnout should in­crease. Week­end vot­ing would not dis­rupt the school day. Peo­ple could take their chil­dren to the polls, thereby in­cul­cat­ing the im­por­tance of vot­ing. The same poll found that those who said they would be more likely to vote on a week­end are in the largest non­voter groups — African Amer­i­cans, 18- to 34- year- olds, His­pan­ics, sin­gles and work­ing women.

The an­swer to the prob­lems of democ­racy is more democ­racy. As Stan­ford po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mor­ris P. Fio­r­ina says, “ If the pres­i­den­tial elec­torate were to dou­ble and the off- year elec­torate to nearly triple, it is likely that par­ties and can­di­dates would make dif­fer­ent ap­peals to cap­ture the sup­port of new vot­ers who would now be show­ing up at the polls.” In­creas­ing the size of the elec­torate to 80 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers would have as big an im­pact on our democ­racy as en­fran­chis­ing women and blacks did. If democ­racy is about all of us, then as many of us as pos­si­ble must vote. Oth­er­wise democ­racy func­tions only for some of us, and many of our ba­sic prob­lems don’t get ad­dressed — our de­pen­dence on oil, for ex­am­ple.

Pres­i­dent Bush cor­rectly ob­served in 2006 that “ Amer­ica is ad­dicted to oil.” The United States is the world’s most prof­li­gate con­sumer of oil, us­ing 25 per­cent of the global sup­ply. China, which has four times as many peo­ple, con­sumes 7 per­cent.

The largest tax that Amer­i­cans have paid over the past five years has been as­sessed not by our gov­ern­ment but by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Pe­tro­leum Ex­port­ing Coun­tries. In 2001, OPEC’s av­er­age price of crude oil was $ 23.12 per bar­rel. In 2005, it was $ 50.71, the equiv­a­lent of a tax in­crease of more than $ 55 bil­lion. If you bought just 16 gal­lons of gas per week ( a tank­ful) in 2005, you were pay­ing $ 500 more per year for gaso­line than you were in 2001. When you fac­tor in the hun­dreds of bil­lions paid for two wars in the Per­sian Gulf re­gion in 15 years, a part of whose pur­pose re­lated to oil, this ad­dic­tion has cost tax­pay­ers far more than costlier gaso­line and heat­ing oil. Yet our gov­ern­ment has done al­most noth­ing to deal with our de­pen­dence on oil, es­pe­cially our de­pen­dence on in­se­cure sources of for­eign oil.

You would think that the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion fails to see the con­nec­tion be­tween our oil ad­dic­tion and the loss of Amer­i­can lives in Iraq. The ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­par­ently finds a war to sus­tain our oil de­pen­dence prefer­able to the ex­er­cise of lead­er­ship to re­duce that de­pen­dence. It can muster the po­lit­i­cal will to go to war, but it can’t muster the courage to tell the Amer­i­can peo­ple the truth about what is re­quired of each of us to break our oil ad­dic­tion. So it is en­abling that ad­dic­tion.

Trans­porta­tion ac­counts for 67 per­cent of the oil we con­sume, and sur­face ve­hi­cles alone ac­count for 56 per­cent. This fact means that a dra­matic re­duc­tion in con­sump­tion is rel­a­tively sim­ple to achieve. Cars and trucks in the United States have an av­er­age fuel ef­fi­ciency of 25.2 miles per gal­lon. In Europe it is 43. A manda­tory in­crease that would bring the U. S. av­er­age to 40 miles per gal­lon or more would re­duce our oil con­sump­tion by one- fourth. In other words, a sin­gle piece of leg­is­la­tion would elim­i­nate the need to im­port oil from OPEC. Let me re­peat: No need to im­port oil from OPEC.

To en­cour­age peo­ple to buy fuel- ef­fi­cient cars, we should es­tab­lish a fee- re­bate sys­tem. The buy­ers of the least fuel- ef­fi­cient cars should pay fees that would in turn be paid as re­bates to those who buy the most fuel- ef­fi­cient cars within that class — a ma­jor in­cen­tive. For­mer CIA di­rec­tor R. James Woolsey Jr., an ad­vo­cate of re­duc­ing U. S. de­pen­dence on for­eign oil, noted in tes­ti­mony be­fore the Se­nate En­ergy and Na­tional Re­sources Com­mit­tee that a hy­brid ve­hi­cle such as a Toy­ota Prius can get 50 miles per gal­lon, and if it were made of light­weight car­bon com­pos­ites used in the man­u­fac­ture of air­craft, it could get 100 miles per gal­lon. He went on to say that if it were a plug- in, flexible- fuel ve­hi­cle, it could get an in­cred­i­ble 1,000 miles per gal­lon. It’s an in­dus­try ready to be born.

We also need to change our tax sys­tem to re­duce our oil de­pen­dence. In gen­eral, we ought to re­duce taxes on things we need, such as wages, and raise taxes on what­ever is dan­ger­ous to us, such as pol­lu­tion and re­source de­ple­tion. We could im­ple­ment a $ 1 per gal­lon gaso­line tax; or an equiv­a­lent car­bon tax, which is a tax on any en­ergy source that emits car­bon diox­ide; or equiv­a­lent taxes on other ma­jor air pol­lu­tants: volatile or­gan­ics, nitro­gen ox­ide, lead, sul­furous diox­ide and par­tic­u­lates. Th­ese taxes could be phased in over five years, with the rev­enue go­ing to re­duce em­ploy­ment taxes ( So­cial Se­cu­rity, Medi­care or un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance) for em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers alike. The gaso­line or car­bon tax would en­cour­age the na­tion to re­duce its de­pen­dence on in­se­cure sources of for­eign oil, and with pay­roll taxes re­duced to 15 per­cent of la­bor costs, busi­nesses would have an in­cen­tive to hire work­ers.

Such a shift in tax­a­tion — away from jobs and to­ward pol­lu­tion, en­ergy and nat­u­ral re­sources — would draw many of the 24 mil­lion part- time em­ploy­ees into the full- time work­force, and mil­lions more who are not work­ing would be more likely to find jobs. Af­ter a few years of adjustment in the case of a gaso­line or car­bon tax, cars would be more fuel- ef­fi­cient, so con­sumers would pay what they used to pay for the same amount of driv­ing, and the broad mid­dle class would con­tinue to pay lower em­ploy­ment taxes. The re­sult would be in­creas­ing de­mand for goods and ser­vices; shrink­ing de­pen­dency pay­ments such as un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion and wel­fare; low­ered so­cial costs, such as crime and avoid­able ill­ness; and a more eq­ui­table tax sys­tem that en­cour­ages ris­ing em­ploy­ment.

Re­duc­ing em­ploy­ment taxes also makes sense on grounds of com­pet­i­tive­ness and eq­uity. Em­ploy­ment taxes now hit our most suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies hard­est. A com­pany such as Mi­crosoft or McKin­sey des­per­ately needs tal­ented peo­ple, and there is a lim­ited pool of those with the req­ui­site skills. As a part of a com­pany’s com­pen­sa­tion pack­age, it has to pay enough to off­set the em­ploy­ment taxes paid by the em­ployee. If it doesn’t make up the taxes in higher wages, the em­ployee can go some­where else where the em­ployer will cover the taxes. Mean­while, at a lum­ber­yard where there is an ex­cess of la­bor, the com­pany doesn’t have to pay higher wages and the bulk of the em­ploy­ment taxes hit the work­ers. Per­versely, it is the low­est- paid work­ers and the com­pa­nies most es­sen­tial to eco­nomic growth that are hit hard­est by em­ploy­ment taxes.

We will never make th­ese sim­ple changes in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem or in our en­ergy and tax sys­tems if we don’t tell the truth about our na­tional cir­cum­stances. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers should not ar­ro­gate to them­selves, based on a de­sire to hold onto po­lit­i­cal power, the right to hide the truth from the peo­ple. If we tell peo­ple the truth we can trust them to do the right thing. Sounds like a rad­i­cal no­tion, but it’s re­ally just com­mon sense.

Once we face the truth about our abysmal voter turnout, our oil ad­dic­tion, our health- care and ed­u­ca­tion crises, and our in­ad­e­quate na­tional sav­ings, there is good news. There are an­swers to all our cur­rent prob­lems. It’s not rocket science. What’s re­quired is the po­lit­i­cal will to en­act poli­cies that can al­low us to thrive in the 21st cen­tury. An ad­min­is­tra­tion bold enough to tell the truth will find an au­di­ence ready for bold so­lu­tions.

BY CLAY JACK­SON — THE AD­VO­CATE MES­SEN­GER VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A vote in fa­vor: Mov­ing Elec­tion Day to the week­end would help work­ing par­ents and oth­ers make it to the polls.

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