Repurposing government

It’s easy to be consumed by what or who we are against rather than what we are for. But if we are going to get Wisconsin and our nation out of the rut we are in politically, we cannot afford to dwell on what we hate. We need to be thinking and talking about what we love and what we hope for and dream about.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen things our society needs and we as citizens should be working for. Here goes:

1. LOCAL CONTROL INSTEAD OF CONTROLLING THE LOCALS. If a community wants to protect its air and water and landscape from sand mining, it should be able to. If cities or small towns want to publicly finance local elections to safeguard them from corruption, they should have that ability. And the best thing we could do for education is to keep state and national politicians as far away from local schools as possible.

2. INVEST IN SUCCESS INSTEAD OF PAYING FOR FAILURE. More for schools, less for prisons. The state budget spends more on prisons than on colleges. We need to dramatically change that equation. Specifically, we need to aspire to universal free public education all the way through college, providing a pathway to the American Dream for every young person. Past generations did the same for us when they built – and paid for – a system of free public education all the way through high school. They knew their kids and grandkids would need more education than they had. Today, we know a high school diploma alone is not a sure pathway to success for our kids and grandkids. So we need to do for future generations what past generations did for us.

3. ONE ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR ALL OF US. A free market instead of the crony capitalism we have now. That means ending trickle-down economic policies and corporate welfare, replacing it with investments in local entrepreneurs and homegrown small businesses. Economic growth comes from putting money in the pockets of consumers and stoking demand, not feeding the rich in a vain attempt to boost supply. We also need to come up with a whole new approach to labor relations aimed at protecting and advancing all workers in every sector of our economy. For starters, replace the minimum wage with a true living wage, and keep it a living wage with annual adjustments for inflation.

4. CORPORATIONS THAT ARE OUR SERVANTS, NOT OUR MASTERS. Corporate accountability and responsibility. Consumer protection. Worker rights. Andrew Jackson said “corporations have neither bodies to kick nor souls to damn.” Stop treating them like people then.

5. ONE FOR ALL TAXATION. One tax system for everyone, not two. Currently, we’ve got one full of loopholes for the wealthy elites who have lobbyists poking holes in the tax code for their benefit and an airtight system for the rest of us who can’t afford to game the system. We don’t need any new taxes, but we sure as hell need to make sure everyone pays the ones we already have.

6. CIVILIZED MEDICINE. Health insurance and medical care for everyone. No exceptions.

7. ENVIRONMENTAL SANITY. Take global climate change seriously. Take the protection of our natural resources seriously.

8. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM FOSSIL FUELS. End subsidies for fossil fuel production, replacing them with a national drive to make our country the world’s leader in sustainable energy.

9. A DIGITAL REA. A modern-day equivalent of rural electrification that would bring high-speed Internet access and cell phone signals to every doorstep the way the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to every home and barn in America.

10. NO MORE EATING OUR KIDS’ INHERITANCE. Pay-as-you-go fiscal responsibility.

11. WHAT’S GOOD FOR TREES IS GOOD FOR GOVERNMENT. Prune dead branches. A new rule for government: If a program works, keep it and pay for it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. By this rule, Wisconsin’s school voucher program and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation both would be abolished. Neither has delivered the promised results. Both have been a waste – and abuse – of taxpayer money.

12. AN END TO TITANIC THINKING. For too long we’ve been fed a line of bull that the ship is sinking and there aren’t enough lifeboats so we all have to fight each other for survival. It’s time to usher in a new era of looking out for each other. We’ve got to make concern for the common good commonplace again. We can start by resisting and reversing the privatization of everything from our schools and to our parks.

And then there’s a thirteenth thing we need to have in order to make these 12 things possible….

REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY. Put a stop to legal bribery. Turn auctions for public offices back into elections. End partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression. Diversify and democratize the media. Restore independence to the courts.

My to-do list is not intended to be all-inclusive. It is merely intended to get us thinking and talking about what we would love to see our state and our nation become, rather than continuing to anguish over how everything we hold dear is being torn down.

The cure for what ails our society today is not more government, but rather a repurposed government. Some of the ideas on my list would result in billions of dollars in government spending cuts, and some of the ideas would call for billions of dollars in new public investments. Acting along these lines and spending dramatically less on some things and more on others would shift government’s purpose from serving a wealthy and privileged few to serving a broader public interest and the common good.

April 13, 2015

This commentary is a distillation of Mike McCabe’s keynote speech at the Wisconsin Grassroots Network festival in Mazomanie on March 28. It was first published as an opinion column by the online news site Wistopia on April 3.