Code Red for Democracy

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There are at least two great things about modern representative democracies. The first is that they allow for the peaceful transfer of power without anyone getting carted off to prison or shot. The second is that–most of the time–our representatives are able to muddle through to compromise solutions that keep most people in support of the government, even if nobody got everything they were looking for. What other system can make those claims?

For those two reasons alone, representative democracy is certainly worth preserving for the next generation. However, there are times when representative democracies break down, and no compromise can be reached with majority support. Suddenly, the wheels of government grind to a halt. These are times when everyone agrees a problem must be faced immediately, but the government cannot react.

Great Britain just reached that point in its debate about how to withdraw from the European Union—the “Brexit” debate. As of April 2, Parliament has rejected the Prime Minister’s proposal three times and has voted down twelve alternative compromise proposals. Some last minute compromise might still emerge, but it seems that the complexity of the issues, factions and opinions has overwhelmed the capability of the British government and eliminated all feasible compromises. Meanwhile, the possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit on April 12thgrows stronger, threatening economic and political chaos.

In the long-run, the British will have to improve the capabilities of their government if they are to deal with issues as complex as Brexit. That may require a different electoral system, party reorganization, or greater institutional support from their civil service. That is in the long run. But what should those of us who care about the next generation do in the short-run to get through a failure of government decision-making like Brexit? Or—closer to home–a government shutdown in the U.S. over policy differences?

If we want to pass on a functioning representative democracy to the next generation, we will surely want to work on the capabilities of our government to reach compromises on difficult issues that are acceptable to the public. But we also need mechanisms to handle the short-term crises that threaten to destroy citizens’ confidence in representative democracy.

It only takes one time for citizens of a country to lose faith in representative democracy and install a strongman to completely destroy the system. That is the story of Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and countless lesser-known despots over the centuries. Once citizens give up on representative democracy—even temporarily–and turn to a strongman to fix things, that strongman never willingly gives power back to the people. The pattern hasn’t changed since the destruction of the Roman Republic by Julius and Augustus Caesar 2,000 years ago.

So, how can those of us who care about preserving our democracy for the next generation make sure that a temporary breakdown in decision-making does not result in long-term damage? How about a non-profit watchdog organization that can declare a Code Red for democracy? Code Red is an announcement many hospitals use to alert their staff that a fire has been detected. Once a Code Red alert is issued everyone’s attention switches from their normal job to preserving the hospital and keeping patients safe. Each employee has specific, simple tasks to perform, sometimes written out on the back of their name badge. Why not the same for our government?

What would the specific, simple tasks be for a corps of citizens determined to overcome a deadlock among elected officials that threatens the stability of a representative democracy? I believe their basic job would be to use all legal means to make the lives of elected officials on all sides of an issue so miserable that they would strain harder to find compromise. To be effective, pressure would have to be applied to all sides, ideally by the normal allies of each legislator or executive official. Anyone who cheers on a breakdown in government would have to be shamed for the risk they are taking.

The actions that could be undertaken by citizens include, phone calls, emails and letters, personal visits to offices, demonstrations, petitions, cutting off contributions, boycotts of politicians’ key supporters, sending letters and articles to the media, picketing in front of their houses, confronting them in public places, and any other legal means. Politicians who use the breakdown of government as a political weapon are playing with fire. Rather than turn to a strongman to put the fire out, why not issue a Code Red to a citizens corps who can make officials do the job we elected them for—to find majorities on tough issues?


How Can We Curb the Accelerating Costs of America’s Natural Disasters?

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Revised: 3/1/19

On November 19, 2016, my hometown newspaper in Western North Carolina reported that wildfires were ripping through 46,000 acres of the Nantahala National Forest. Natural disasters leave wounds—physical and mental—death and financial loss. Many neighbors in Western North Carolina and Tennessee lost homes, businesses, and the lives of relatives in the fires of 2016. Some victims take years to recover, some never do.

We all hope for safe communities, but graphic images of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters have become familiar in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the scorekeeper for our nation’s natural disasters and they do it in billions of dollars. In 2018, we suffered 14 natural disasters in which physical damage and the interruption of businesses totaled $91 billion. Surprisingly, 2018 was only the fourth most expensive year for natural disasters.  The cost of natural disasters in 2017 was over $300 billion. That’s twice the $149 billion direct costs of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Year by year, the cost and frequency of natural disasters vary a lot, but the five year averages have shown crazy growth. Back in the 1990s, the five year average yearly cost of disasters was pretty stable at around $20 billion in the U.S. After 2001, the five year average cost more than doubled, fluctuating between $50 billion and $60 billion. Then around 2015, the five year average started climbing again to $100 billion. All of these figures are adjusted for inflation, so something real is going on here.

What will the annual figures, the suffering, and the loss of life be when the kids born this year become adults? We have already doubled the long-term average. Will it double again to $200 billion with spikes of $400 billion? What will it be like to live in a country that has the equivalent loss of a 9/11 attack–or two–every year?

As with most long-term issues, we can reverse this trend with innovation and political will if we act now. We do not have to continue rebuilding in floodplains, we can restore wetlands that protect us from flooding, we can enact building codes that require elevating homes in flood prone areas, harden them against hurricane force winds and earthquakes, make them more fire resistant in fire prone areas, and manage the brush that spreads wildfires. We can do better.

A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences concluded that $1 spent on these types of mitigation efforts, when targeted to the right areas, typically results in $4 to $6 of savings. Pretty good odds. Congress made a small down payment on prevention by passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which allows diversion of some funds from disaster recovery to disaster prevention, but the amounts spent so far are too small to get the job done.

The federal government has allocated a little less than $1 billion per year to minimizing losses from disasters betwee­­­n 2007 and 2016, or about 1% of their annual cost. My analysis of what it would take in federal funding to seriously turn around the costs of natural disasters through mitigation efforts is an additional $2.5 to $5 billion per year. The low figure is based on the annual costs of natural disasters increasing by the same absolute amount as it has in the last 17 years–$4.7 billion per year–and the higher figure is based on the average cost of disasters growing by the same annual rate of 10%. The right figure is probably somewhere in between, but could be higher if global warming is truly driving the increasing costs of natural disasters.

In just a few years of consistent investment in mitigation, savings on disaster relief would more than pay the annual cost of mitigation. The future is always hidden in a cloud of “what ifs?” and nothing is more unpredictable than the annual costs of natural disasters–but the trend line is unmistakable. The federal government ends up paying out many billions of dollars each year responding to disasters. Would the initial expenditures for an effective mitigation program be too much of a burden to the current generation of taxpayers? The high estimate of what we need to spend is about the same as we spend on two days of Social Security payments or three days of what we spend on the Department of Defense Budget. Investing more in mitigation efforts rather than letting the costs of natural disasters run out of control is smart for the current generation of taxpayers and the responsible thing to do on behalf of the next generation.

Details of my analysis are available on request by emailing me at


Carter, Shan, and Amanda Cox. “One 9/11 Tally: $ 3.3 Trillion.” The New York Times, September 8 2011.

“Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018.” FEMA,

National Institute of Building Sciences Multihazard Mitigation Council. “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” Washington, DC: National Institute of Building Sciences, 2017.

Sack, Kevin, and John Schwartz. “As Storms Keep Coming, Fema Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair.” The New York Times, October 8, 2018 2018.

Stauffer, Anne, Justin Theal, and Colin Foard. “Natural Disaster Mitigation Spending Not Comprehensively Tracked.” Pew,–not-comprehensively-tracked.

“U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI)


What Do 21 Federal Government Shut Downs Mean For the Next Generation?

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We are suffering through the 21st federal government shut down since the administration of Gerald Ford.*  Key agencies of our federal government are shut down for any but essential services. Need a passport? Sorry. Need a permit? Sorry. Need some information? Sorry. Need the trash picked up at a national park? Sorry. And, for essential services, federal workers are being forced to work without pay. How is that not involuntary servitude?

Are there some lessons from these test of wills between presidents and Congress? Commentators focus on short term issues: Who gets the blame? What compromise will reopen these agencies? Will President Trump get something he can call wall funding? Will his supporters be satisfied? If he does, what will the Democrats get in return?

How would these questions change if we focused on the next generation, especially those old enough to follow the news? We might ask: Does shutting down the government over a policy argument strengthen or weaken the institutions we will be passing on to the next generation? Does it strengthen or weaken the next generation’s faith in democracy? Does it discourage them from choosing a career in public service?

Many kids follow in the footsteps of their parents—I doubt the children of furloughed park rangers are hearing what a great career they could make in the park system.

Taking a next generation view changes the issues and the questions in any political discussion. Could it help settle stubborn disputes before they escalate to a crisis? Maybe. Most of our political leaders are parents and grandparents. Some may tone down their demands and rhetoric if we remind them the kids are listening and taking this all in. Second, when parties seem irreconcilable, a well-known negotiation tactic is to bring additional issues to the table. Bringing the interests of the next generation into the discussion automatically does that. Suddenly, there are more things to bargain about and trade off.

The next time we are headed for a shut down, let’s ask everyone, “Have you thought about the next generation?”


*All 21 Government Shutdowns in U.S. History


The 18 Year Agenda – 1.0

Photo by George Dolgikh on

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks, but there has been some heavy-duty work going on in the background. I have been puzzling over the question of what a time traveler from 2036–one of the next generation of voters who was born in 2018–would say we should have been working on. Should our priorities be the issues of the last election–immigration, healthcare, trust in government, the economy–or something else?

Well, superficial and biased as it may be, here is one old guy’s opinion. Call it version 1.0, subject to lots of additions, subtractions, and revisions as more facts come to light. The list has 39 ranked issues that I have come across in my reading, things that the next generation might want us to be focused on.

The ranking depends on three factors multiplied by each other. The factors are:

  • Impact – on a scale of 1 to 10, how serious is it for the people affected
  • Breadth – on a scale of 1 to 10, how many people are affected
  • Multiplier – if I expected a condition to become less serious in the future–0.5, stay about the same–1, become more serious–1.5

Obviously, there is a lot of room here for different judgments on these issues. Also, the issues are slanted towards things that can be counted. I will be adding some intangible issues about attitudes and values in 2.0.

Spoiler alert! This is a long one with lots of statistics. Let me know what you think.

War – A successful cyber attack on the U.S. could have a major impact on the a large portion of the population.

A successful attack on the U.S. electric grid that lasted weeks or months could bring ordinary life to a halt, result in widespread deprivation and a breakdown of law and order (Koppel, Lights Out).

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Inequality – Ethnic, racial and gender disparities still affect a majority of Americans in a significant way.

Educational attainment varies significantly by race and ethnicity. As of 2016, 35% of non-Hispanic whites held college degrees, 21% of blacks, 53% of Asians, 15% of Native Americans, and 15% of Hispanics (American Community Survey, Census Bureau). In 2017, there was still evidence of discrimination in the median weekly wages of women, blacks and Hispanics. Women earned just 84% as much as men, Blacks earned just 78% the average of Whites, and Hispanics 74%. (BLS). 72% of Whites own their home compare to less than half of Blacks and Hispanics (National Association of Realtors). Black men are imprisoned at five times and Hispanic at twice the rate of white men. The disparities are not as great for women, but black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 120). In 2015, the number of people under the age of 65 who did not have health insurance were 7.5% for whites, 11.2% for blacks, and 21.1% for Hispanics (NCHS). 72% of White families own their own homes in 2017 compared to 42% of Black families and 45% of Hispanic families (Census Bureau, Dept. of Commerce, 70). 10% of American families live below the poverty level in 2016. The percentage of Black and Hispanic families living in poverty is roughly twice the average of White families. (Census Bureau)
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Environment – Habitat loss is resulting in pressure on many animal species

Globally, vertebrate populations declined by an average of 52% between 1970 and 2010 (World Wildlife Fund). There are 2,300 threatened or endangered species in the U.S., of which recovery plans have only been made for about half (EPA). 150 U.S. species have already gone extinct. 25% of land in the lower 48 states has been converted to agriculture and another 6% for housing and other uses. More than half of the nation’s wetlands have been lost (National Wildlife Foundation, National Landcover Database).

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Environment – Climate change is already having moderate impacts on costal communities, agriculture, and extreme weather events. These are expected to grow more severe and more widespread in the future

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are steadily accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere and are now at a higher level than at any time in the last 800,000 years. This is causing “climate forcing” to warmer temperatures because less heat is radiating back into space (EPA, U.S. National Climate Assessment). Except for Middle Eastern oil kingdoms, per person emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the U.S. are among the highest in the world at 16 metric tons per year (Global Carbon project, Gapminder, UN). There is some progress being made as energy consumption in the U.S. dropped 1.4% between 2000 and 2016 while the economy experienced real growth of 33%. During this period, the proportion of energy provided by renewable sources grew from 6% to 10% (Energy Information Administration, BEA). The cost of solar photovoltaic modules has been dropping by about 10% per year in the last 16 years (IRENA, solar server).
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Education – K-12 has a high impact on almost everyone and it appears the U.S. is doing OK on average, although there are wide disparities between districts

The U.S. spends about 5% of GDP on education, which is about average for advanced democracies (UNESCO, World Bank–World Development Indicators). Expenditures on public education have increased 67% between 2000 and 2015, not adjusted for inflation while GDP grew 76% during the same period. U.S. students score around the average level on international achievement tests when compared with other wealthy democratic nations. Students in a number of East Asian countries and Russia score marginally higher (National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment). The rate of kids dropping out of school has declined from 10.9% in 2000 to 5.9% in 2016 (Current Population Survey, Census Bureau). School districts that serve large populations of minority students receive about $1,800 less per student than districts having the fewest minorities and this has an serious impact on their educational attainment (The Education Trust).
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Government – Federal and state debt has a small but growing impact on everyone in the U.S.

 Expenditures by the federal government exceeded receipts by $603 billion in 2017. This deficit amounted to 4.7% of GDP, compared to an average deficit of 2.8% of GDP in OECD countries in 2017 (Office of Management and Budget, OECD Economic Outlook 2017). The federal government debt amounted to $14.8 trillion in 2017, which represented 77% of GDP. By contrast, in 2000, federal debt was only 33% of GDP. The states also had cumulative debt of $1.1 trillion as well as $1.4 trillion in underfunded pension liabilities that does not show up as debt. (Office of Management and Budget, Tax Foundation). Foreign investment in U.S. federal debt is now over $6 trillion (Treasury Bulletin, Sept 2017). Interest payments on the federal debt  will be over $250 billion this year and could easily rise to more than $1 trillion in the next 10 years. Borrowing has been made easier due to historically low interest rates of 2-3%, but it appears that they could be headed back up to the more normal 4-5% range (Tax Policy Center).

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Economy – Jobs have a strong impact on the lives of most Americans

Families with two full-working parents have a median income of $102,400, with one full time and one part time, $84,000, and with one full time, $55,000 (Pew Research). Participation in employment over the last 18 years has dropped, however, from 64% of the population over 16 to 60%. The economy has created jobs only at a rate of 0.7% during this period compared to the 2% in real growth (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Our World in Data).

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Inequality – Income and wealth disparities have a serious impact on the lives of most Americans, but this has been partially moderated by taxes and government transfer payments

Incomes for the bottom 60% of the income scale in the U.S. have stagnated since 2000 while income of the upper 40% have continued to rise. The hourly compensation of workers is growing much more slowly than productivity (Economic Policy Institute, BEA, BLS). In 2015, the top 20% of households earned a median income of $292,000 or $215,000 after tax (Congressional Budget Office). The median weekly earnings of union members were 25% higher than non-union workers in 2016, however the union membership had dropped from 13.5% of the workforce in 2000 to 11% in 2016 (BLS, 108). Since the 1960s there have been many restrictions placed on unions, especially from Right to Work laws. Hourly earnings of production workers increased an average of 2.8% per year from 1998 to 2016 (BLS, 107). The federal minimum wage has only increased 5% since 1997 when adjusted for inflation (BLS, 109).
10% of American families live below the poverty level in 2016. 
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Health – Cost and coverage has a moderate impact on almost all citizens under 65

Between 2000 and 2015, the amount that the was spent in the U.S. on health increased 5.8% per year (National Center for Health Statistics, CDC) Medicare payments have increased 215% between 2000 and 2016. The balances in its trust funds are declining (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). In 2015, 10.6% of people under the age of 65 did not have health insurance. (NCHS). The U.S. spends over $9,000 per year per person on health care, which is more than twice as much as advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom or Japan. This now amounts to more than 16% of GDP (World Development Indicators – World Bank).
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War – While nuclear war seems highly unlikely, there is some chance that one could start. If it did, even among nations on the other side of the globe, it would have a severe impact on all Americans.

The number of nuclear warheads has dropped from over 60,000 in the 1980s to 10,000, but a large scale exchange still poses a danger of catastrophic change to the planet. A nuclear exchange of several hundred weapons between two minor nuclear powers could cause the direct deaths of over a billion and temperatures to drop significantly from smoke blocking out sunlight, causing the failure of food crops in some areas. A large scale exchange of nuclear weapons between the U.S. and Russia could cause a “nuclear winter” that would last for more than a decade and could end human civilization (Our World in Data, Robock, “Nuclear Smoke and the Climatic Effects of Nuclear War” in Caldicott, Sleepwalking to Armageddon).

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War – The cost of wars has risen significantly, causing a large impact on the entire population of the U.S.

The total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is estimated to be $2.4 trillion including interest payments because the combat was financed with borrowed money (Congressional Budget Office).

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Health – Unhealthy lifestyle has a serious impact on moderate proportion of the population

Less than a third of Americans and only one in five teenagers meet fitness guidelines (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services). One in five high school students is rated as obese and the percentage has been creeping up (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). The amount of calories consumed per person in the U.S. has been stable at about 3,650 for the last 15 years, but the percentage of calories coming from fat has been increasing (FAOstat, Our World in Data). Household with very low food security is about 1 out of 20 (Economic Research Service, Dept. of Agriculture). The percentage of the population over 15 who smoke has declined from 25% in 2000 to 17% in 2015 (WDI, World Bank).
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Infrastructure – Substandard infrastructure has a mild effect on most Americans

Between 2016 and 2025 we will need $4.6 trillion to spend for infrastructure needs, but the estimated funding will only be $2.5 trillion, leaving a gap of $2.1 trillion (2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers).

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National Mood – Low confidence in government has a medium impact on a majority of people

Only 20% of people polled in the U.S. say that they can trust the federal government always or most of the time (Pew Research Center). In 2013, polls showed 76% of people in the U.S. believing that political parties are corrupt and the average rating of 4 for public sector corruption where zero represents no corruption and 5 means corruption is a very serious problem. (Transparency International, Our World in Data).

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Environment – Access to water stocks is declining and has a significant impact on a large part of the country

Internal renewable water resources per person have declined 1% per year for the last 17 years. (WDI, World Bank). In 2013, water managers in 40 out of 50 states expected shortages in the next ten years (U.S. Government Accountability Office)..

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Housing – Affordability is a serious problem for a moderate percentage of the population and is becoming more of a problem for the middle class

The monthly payment to buy an average house is slightly better as a percentage of median income than it was in 2000, but has been climbing for the last five years (National Association of REALTORS). Home ownership rates have returned to their historical average in the low 60% after being artificially boosted by sub-prime mortgages in the 2000s (Census Bureau, Dept. of Commerce). 
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Science and Technology – Advancement in science and technology affects most people in society by a significant amount

The number of U.S. patent filings has increased 5% per year between 1997 and 2015 (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office). However, U.S. journal articles in science and engineering only increased 2% per year between 2003 and 2016, and there was an 8% decline in articles published between the peak in 2014 and 2016 (National Science Foundation).

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Government – Spending has a moderate impact on almost everyone in the U.S.

Total government spending (local, state and federal) in 2011 was about 44% of GDP, which was up from 41% in 1995. This placed the U.S. in the middle to low end of spending compared to other advanced democracies (Our World in Data, IMF). Public social spending, however was only 19% of GDP in 2016, up from 14% in 2000. This is on the very low end for advanced democracies (Our World in Data, OECD). Military expenditures run at just over 3% of GDP, which is a similar percentage to the late 1990s. However, during the first decade of the 2000s, it increased to over 5% as the U.S. fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Our World in Data, World Bank, World Development Indicators). The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation has grown from 17M people in 2000 to 44M in 2016. Program costs have risen from $17.1B to $71.0B. Total federal food assistance has risen from $32.3B in 2000 to $101.6B in 2016 (Food and Nutrition Service, 91).
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Population – Aging of the population will have an impact on most of our institutions as politically active seniors claim more attention and resources

The proportion of the population that is over 65 increased from 12.4% in 2000 to 15.2% in 2016 and is projected to climb to 20.6% by 2030 (American Community Survey, Decennial Censuses and Population Projections Program, 618). The United Nations Population Division’s midrange estimate is that the “dependency ratio,” that is the number of those over 70 divided by those between 20 and 69 will increase from 15 per hundred to 26. Social Security payments have doubled between 2000 and 2016 and the Social Security Trust Funds have stopped growing and will soon be a net drain on the federal budget. (Social Security Administration).
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Education – Knowledge of government–or lack of it–has a large impact on the quality of our democracy, which affects almost everyone

Civics education should prepare students with the knowledge and motivation to be active, responsible citizens, but recent research indicates this is not happening. 41 states require less than one year of instruction in civics or U.S. government (Center for American Progress). Only 23% of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the  National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam in 2014. The average score on U.S. government advanced placement exams is 2.64 out of 5 (College Board) and only 26% of U.S. adults can name the three branches of the federal government (Annenberg Public Policy Center).
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Government – Tax burden has a moderate effect on most people

Federal tax rates, including income tax and social security, paid by people at the average level of earnings in the U.S. in 2016 was 26% compared to an OECD average of 25.5% (Taxing Wages, OECD), however, they are only half as progressive as the average for the OECD countries, so, on average low income people are paying a higher share of their income and higher income people a lower share than in most advanced democracies. (OECD, 2008).
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Terrorism and Mass Murders – Have a severe impact on a very small number of people, but have a large psychological and fiscal impact on a large proportion of the population as we try to make society more secure

The number of terrorism-related incidents have increased significantly from the 1990s to today, reaching a peak of 16,000 in 2014 and fatalities have risen with the number of incidents. The vast majority of these incidents are occurring in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. The US had 61 incidents in 2016. The effect on death rates is trivial in comparison with other causes, but the psychological impact is great (Our World in Data)

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Drug and Alcohol Abuse – Having a moderate impact on a moderate number of citizens and a high impact on a small number

While starting from a small base, overdose deaths from both legal and illegal drugs have been increasing exponentially, up almost 300% in the sixteen years between 1999 and 2015 (National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, 170). About 18% of the public uses illegal drugs at least once a year and 10% use them monthly. The most common drug used is marijuana, which is being legalized in a growing number of states. About one half of high school students have tried at least one illegal drug at least once and about one third of High School Seniors use alcohol monthly (National Survey on Drug Use, Monitoring the Future Project, University of Mich. 145). About 8% of the U.S. population uses marijuana at least monthly and 2% use other illegal drugs. 48% of high school seniors say that they have used an illegal drug sometime in their lives (National Survey on Drug Use, Monitoring the Future Project, U. of Mich.). The proportion of the U.S. population that suffers from alcohol abuse is slightly over 2% and has not changed significantly in the last 18 years (IHME, Global Burden of Disease). The U.S. has a rate of deaths from drug use disorders second only to Russia at 9 per 100,000 in 2016. The rate of deaths from alcohol use disorder is about 3 (IHME, Global Burden of Disease).
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Family Structure – Changes are having a significant impact on children raised outside of two parent families

31% of children do not live with both their parents. This ratio has not changed significantly in the period between 2000 and 2016. (Annual Social and Economic Supplements, Current Population Surveys, Census Bureau). The proportion of households containing a married couple declined from 56% in 2000 to 52% in 2016 (Annual Social and Economic Supplements, Current Population Surveys, Census Bureau). The number of teenage girls having babies has declined steadily, dropping from 48 per 1,000 in 2000 to 20 in 2016, but there has been a significant increase in women over 25 having births without being married, increasing from 34% in 2000 to 52% in 2015. The ratio of women of all ages having babies without being married varies with ethnic background with whites at 40%, blacks at 60% and Hispanics at 67% (National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, 165). The U.S. spends less than 1% of GDP on public support for families. Most advanced democracies spend 3 or 4 times as much (OECD, World Bank).
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Interpersonal Trust – A lack of trust has a moderate impact on 70% of Americans

Only 31% of people polled in the U.S. agreed with the statement that “most people can be trusted.” This has declined slowly since the 1990s. While many countries are significantly below this level, people in China and the Nordic countries show much higher levels of interpersonal trust (General Social Survey, World Value Survey).
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Human Rights – Denial of rights has a serious effect on a moderate number of people in the U.S.

The U.S. ranks high on human rights, especially on economic freedom, press freedom, religious freedom, and freedom of speech and assembly. Compared to other advanced democracies, we have much higher incarceration rates and racial and income disparities in all parts of the criminal justice system. There have been instances of governments targeting ethnic minorities for immigration enforcement. At times, Muslims have been targeted for unwarranted surveillance since the 9/11 attack (Human Rights Watch, ACLU, Freedom House).

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Economy – Trade growth benefits are not large, but are widely shared

In the last 18 years, trade has grown from being 23% to 28% of GDP (World Bank). This is partially due to the continued decline in transaction and transportation costs (OECD). Historically, increased trade has been correlated with increases in per capita GDP (Our World in Data, Ventura).

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National Mood – Losing hope for the economic prospects of the next generation has a medium impact on more than half of the population

60% of U.S. residents polled in 2015 expected the next generation to be worse off financially compared to their parents. (Global Attitudes Survey, Pew Research Center). In the last 10 years, there has been a slight decline in the level of self-reported happiness among Americans (World Happiness Report, World Values Survey). 

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Education – College provides great opportunity for those who graduate, but affordability is an important issue

The unemployment rate of college graduates was half that of those with only a high school degree in 2016 and their median earnings were 67% higher (BLS, 106). The average yearly cost of college including tuition, room and board has increased 129% at public schools and 93% at private between 2000 and 2016. To finance this increase, 83% of students were receiving financial aid in 2015, but that was not enough to fill the gap—47% of students take on loans, driving student loan balances from $346 billion in 2004 to $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 255% increase (National Center for Education Statistics, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 382). Student loan repayment: “Today, 1 in 5 federal student loan borrowers—more than 8 million Americans—are in default, and millions more are struggling to make payments” (Pew Research).

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Economy – Economic growth has a moderate impact on the top 20% of earners and a small or no impact on the rest

Over the last 18 years, the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 2% on average when adjusted for inflation (Bureau of Economic Analysis). The benefits of this growth have been unevenly distributed. Most of the benefit has gone to the 20% of households that already have the highest incomes. Median household disposable income adjusted for inflation, has actually declined slightly between 2000 – 2015 (Incomes Across the Distribution). 

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Health – A concern for almost everyone and lagging other advanced democracies

Life expectancy in the U.S. is increasing slowly. Between 1995 and 2015, it increased from 75.8 years to 78.8. Part of this increase is due to a decline in infant mortality rates, which dropped from 7.6 per thousand births to 5.8 (National Center for Health Statistics, CDC). The U.S. has a very high rate of cancer with 1.6% of the population having some form. This percentage has not changed significantly in the last 20 years (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation – IHME, Global Burden of Disease). 22% of the population in the U.S. has some form of mental disorder, which is the highest in the world (IHME).

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Environment – Air quality affects everybody, but is pretty good in the U.S. and continues to improve

Emissions of air pollutants have declined significantly in the last 16 years, for instance Nitrogen Oxides by half. Deaths per 100,000 from air pollution have declined by a like amount (Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, EPA).

2 10 1 20
Crime – Having a high impact on some citizens, but declining in most years and areas

Between 2000 and 2015, violent crime rates declined 0.6% per year and property crimes by 1.1% (Crime in the United States, FBI). Violent victimization at schools in the U.S. has declined from around 8 per 1,000 in the late 1990s to 2 per 1,000 in 2015 (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Although the trend is moving in the right direction, by international standards violent crime rates are still high. The rate of homicides in the U.S. was 6.9 per 100,000 in 2009, which was five times higher than Canada and seven times higher than Europe (Our World in Data). 
7 4 0.5 14
Technology – Diffusion of technology has a significant impact on those who do not have access

25% of American families do not have access to the Internet at home. (WDI, World Bank).

6 2 1 12
Population – Growth of the population is at a manageable rate and should have little effect on resources

In 2015, the growth rate of the U.S. population was 0.7%. Immigration amounted to 0.8%, so without immigration, the rate of growth would have been -0.1%. (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division)

1 10 1 10
Immigration – Legal immigrants have generally been a positive benefit for the U.S. Legal immigration affects few people in a moderately positive way.

About 10% of the American population are legal immigrants. When their American-born children are added in, they equal 21% of the population. Newer immigrants have similar education levels as native-born citizens, work and pay taxes at similar levels, and are as law-abiding as native-born citizens. Immigrants have driven two-thirds of U.S. economic growth since 2011 and many are active in starting new firms (The Balance).

2 4 1 8
War – War casualties for the U.S. have been very low since the end of the Vietnam War.

Statistics show that after World War II, battle deaths from wars have not been a major cause of death, dropping to below 5 per 100,000 of global population. While there have been many localized violent conflicts, none have involved great powers that have the capability to kill millions of people. United Nations peacekeeping efforts have helped and have grown significantly between the 1990s and today (Our World in Data). The Second Iraq and the Afghanistan wars have cost about 7,000 American lives (U.S. Department of Defense). Deaths of Iraqis and Afghans is uncertain, but 170,000 have been documented in Iraq and 104,000 in Afghanistan. Other estimates including undocumented deaths are two to three times higher (Iraq Body Count Project, Costs of War project, Brown University).

8 2 0.5 8
Immigration – Illegal immigration has a small effect on a small proportion of U.S. citizens

About 11 million, or 3% of the population are undocumented. This is lower than its peak in of 12 million in 2007. About half enter illegally by crossing a border and half come on legal visas, but stay on after their visas expire. They do compete for jobs with very low skilled workers, but much of their labor is concentrated in agriculture, landscaping, and other fields that do not interest native-born workers. They commit crimes at a lower rate than native born citizens (The Balance).

4 2 1 8
Immigration – Refugees have a negligible effect on U.S. society and economy because of their very small numbers.

Globally, the number of refugees is growing exponentially from 9.9M in 2006 to 17.2M in 2016. Internally displaced people have gone from 12.8M to 36.6M in the same period (UNHCR Global Trends, 735). However, the U.S. takes in few of these. In 2015, there were about 70,000 who asked for, but only 26,000 who were granted asylum in the U.S. This amounted to 0.008% of the population (The Balance).

2 2 1.5 6

Conditional Optimism

grayscale photo of people cheers glasses
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The old saying goes: A pessimist says that glass is half empty. An optimist says the glass is half full.* But what do you call the person who picks up the glass and fills it? How about a “conditional optimist,” one who believes they can create the future by taking action? This is an idea that was recently discussed on the NPR show Marketplace by Nobel honored economist Paul Romer.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future, thinking that our children will never have the same opportunities we had, or optimistic, thinking that we have faced many crises before and overcome them, so we will again. Prospective democracy requires thinking deeply about the future and then taking action to create the future we want for our children and grandchildren–the next generation of voters. Romer’s ideas about the attitude of conditional optimism seems like a fit.

I recommend his interview if you want to feel positive about the future. You can listen here.

Be hopeful, be active


*And one for fun: An industrial engineer looks at the glass and says, That’s twice as much glass as we need for the job!

Two Visions, One Policy

man in brown long sleeved button up shirt standing while using gray laptop computer on brown wooden table beside woman in gray long sleeved shirt sitting
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The next generation of Americans will turn its focus to politics in the 2020s and 2030s, and what will they find? A garbage can overflowing with social and governmental problems our generation could not resolve–

…and the garbage can will keep filling up with problems that none of us can foresee.

Every issue listed above is known today, so the voters of the future will have a right to ask why we didn’t do something about them? Like a hole in the roof, these things do not fix themselves–if unattended, they just get bigger over time. What holds us back?

On the big issues of the day, we live in a time of 51% government. Whichever party has the last 1% of votes in Congress works to create policy that conforms to its vision of good government and tries to get it passed. The Affordable Care Act passed with no Republican votes and the 2017 Republican tax cut passed with no Democratic votes. This style of governing wasn’t always the case—President Reagan’s 1986 tax cut bill passed with support of 70% of Democrats in the House of Representatives and 65% of the Republicans. The leaders of both parties were willing to take risks for a bipartisan deal, in spite of opposition from a good share of their own members.

The art of the 1986 tax bill is that both sides could support the same measure for different reasons. Republicans saw their vision of government realized in significant, across-the-board reductions in tax rates while Democrats were happy with the elimination of deductions (loopholes) they considered unfair. Opposing partisans supported the same package based on different values and goals.

I have personal experience with another federal policy that  received strong bipartisan support–employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). The ESOP laws enabled me to sell a family business to our employees and keep it intact. Republicans liked ESOPs because they encourage the “ownership society” (Mitch McConnell is a big fan) and Democrats liked them because they help “spread the wealth.” Different values for the same policy.

To tackle the big problems of today, we don’t need more people of vision—each party has a strong vision of what government should be. Instead, we need creative people who can find common policies that partisans with different visions can support for different reasons. This is not so different from other parts of society. A salesperson on the job to support a family can work with a customer who is shopping to find the right item at a reasonable price. Together they create a successful transaction, even with starkly different goals. They do not need to share each other‘s vision to make things work. We should expect no less from our elected officials.


“Why should I care about posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?”

Groucho Marx’s quip is funny, but not what most of us believe. Those who are parents or grandparents—and many who aren’t—believe we should balance the welfare of the next generation with our own. For a prospective democracy, it is a matter of equity that we should not take advantage of children simply because they are too young to vote.

How should we balance the interests of children, who are politically powerless, with those of us who can vote, lobby and hold office? Many parents make extreme sacrifices for their own children, but it would be unrealistic to think that most people would do the same for all children. Is there a middle path between an “everything for the kids” stance and Groucho Marx?

One possible model for prospective democracy is a legal standard that has developed over hundreds of years for trustees who manage the affairs of minor children: the prudent person rule. When legal disputes arose about the management of trust funds, judges had to find a middle way to determine if a trustee was being reasonable. Sometimes, trust funds had losses on investments—was the trustee being reckless in their investment decisions or doing the best they could with the information they had at the time? Did they take reasonable steps to check on potential investments? Judges realized that trustees did not have god-like foresight, so they would ask if the trustee was making rational, intelligent decisions—were they acting as a prudent person would?

The prudent person rule could be a key guideline for policy-makers in a democracy that cared about the next generation of voters. If they were acting in good faith to protect the interests of those who are politically powerless, prudent policy-makers would ask about the potential eighteen year effects of a proposed policy, evaluate the evidence from history and research, and make sure that multiple voices are heard.  We can’t ask that policy-makers always be right in their judgements, but a person of average intelligence should be able to review their work and conclude they made a reasonable effort to avoid harming the next generation—they did what a prudent person would have done.