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The third-party stump speech we need

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This is one columnist’s stab at what a candidate might sound like if he or she were trying to appeal to the majority of voters in the middle of the electorate who feel both parties are failing us.

My fellow alienated Americans:

How’s this for something different? I want to raise your taxes, cut spending on programs you like, and force you to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections. And I want you to cheer when I’m done. Because if you embrace the “decade of renewal” I’m calling for, we’ll emerge with a more competitive, sustainable and just America — the kind of America we all want to leave to our children.

I’m running for president as an independent because we need to change the debate if we’re going to change the country. Neither of our two major parties has a strategy for solving our biggest problems; they have strategies for winning elections, which isn’t the same thing. Democrats and Republicans will tell you, as I do, that they want to make America competitive again, keep faith with our deepest values of fairness and opportunity, and fix our broken political system. But the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed can’t begin to get us there. Both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. And neither party trusts you enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things — in fact, their pollsters tell them that if they do, you’ll vote them out.

Well, I’m happy to take on that job. I won’t give you the usual pabulum about how we’re going to “save the American Dream” or restore our supremacy as the sole superpower. The loss of our economic dominance was at some point inevitable. We’ve had quite a run since World War II, when we were the only economy left standing, and others were bound to start catching up. The spread of capitalism is helping hundreds of millions of people rise out of poverty in India and China. That’s a fantastic thing for humanity. And if we manage it right, that can also be a positive thing for the United States, because the growing wealth of nations means billions of new customers for the kind of goods and services America ingenuity can produce.

We can make this an era of opportunities, not threats. But only if we think differently. When the changes reshaping the global economy are dramatic, incremental responses won’t suffice. We need a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges.

I believe that it will take seven big domestic initiatives to get America back on track. Bear with me if I go a little deep on the details, because that’s the only way for you to see what I mean.

1. Fix the economy. Our economy is working off a massive hangover of debt that makes this recession and recovery different from those we’ve gone through before. That means we need to make major moves to get jobs and growth back to anything like what we think of as normal. It also means that, for a couple years, worries about the budget deficit have to take a backseat to spurring growth. Fix the economy, and it’ll be easier to fix the budget.

To boost jobs and growth, we first need major, permanent tax reform. I propose we slash, and over five years eliminate, our sky-high corporate income and payroll taxes, and, once unemployment comes down to 6 percent again, we replace those job-killing, wage-crushing taxes with new taxes on consumption and dirty energy. This is the way to unleash a new era of entrepreneurial innovation while funding the government we need.

At the same time, to win back the million jobs now lost because China’s currency manipulation artificially raises the price of our exports to that country, I would impose a proportionate tax on imports from China. Let me be clear: China’s rise as an economic power is a good thing for the world and a great thing for the Chinese people. China is not the source of all our economic woes. But we can no longer allow China’s brazen currency manipulation — nor its routine theft of American intellectual property — to tilt the playing field unfairly against American jobs.

Next, until private-sector job growth gets back to where it should be, we should use government funds to create millions of short-term, labor-intensive service jobs in fields like education, elder care, public health and safety, and urban infrastructure maintenance. I would also put Americans to work on the countless roads, bridges, airports, schools and sewer systems across the country that need to be modernized.

Finally, over the longer-term, we need to make sure in-person service-sector work is well compensated. Global economic integration is putting downward pressure on the wages of American jobs that can be performed elsewhere. But in-person service work — jobs ranging from home health care to retail sales to teaching to personal grooming and more, accounting for roughly 30 million jobs in the United States — is immune to these pressures, since it can’t be offshored. If we could find ways to guarantee that this kind of work delivers a middle-class living, it would offer an important measure of security and optimism for millions.

I’ll also develop new “carrots” and “sticks” to get multinational firms to locate more manufacturing and high-value jobs in America.

2. Fix education. We’ve been tinkering at the edges when it comes to school improvement, because we’ve ignored the most important question: Who should teach? While the world’s highest-performing school systems — those in places like Singapore, Finland and South Korea — recruit their teachers from the top third of their graduating class, we recruit ours from the middle and bottom thirds, especially for schools in poor neighborhoods. This “strategy” isn’t working. Up through the 1970s, the quality of our teacher corps was in effect subsidized by discrimination, because women and minorities didn’t have many other job opportunities. All that’s changed, but as career options have multiplied for those who used to become teachers, salaries haven’t kept pace to attract top talent.

I see an America where our most talented young people flock to the classroom, not to Wall Street. They should see teaching as the most exciting profession in the country — with top teachers and principals able to earn $150,000 a year or more. To get there will take federal investment. We’ll need to stop condemning millions of poor children to schools that can never get great teachers and principals because they’ve been shortchanged by a 19th century system of local school finance that’s rigged against them. This investment should also help to fund universal preschool from age 3, and longer school days and years, where we lag our major economic competitors.

3. Fix health care. We need to make sure every person in America has basic health coverage that doesn’t break the bank. To achieve that, Democrats must accept a private insurance industry and Republicans must accept that some people can’t afford decent policies on their own. This “grand bargain” is about liberals agreeing that innovation shouldn’t be regulated out of U.S. health care and conservatives agreeing that justice has to be regulated into it. The 50 million uninsured may seem invisible, but today their ranks are equal to the combined populations of Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Kansas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming. Would America turn its back on these 25 states if they all lacked basic health coverage? That is what we’ve been doing for decades.

Making the system more efficient is the key to access and affordability. But change won’t come easy, because while there’s much to admire in American health care, our Medical-Industrial Complex knows that every dollar of health-care “waste” is somebody’s dollar of income. It’s time to learn from a nation like Singapore, which spends 4 percent of GDP on health care and gets as good or better results than we do spending 17 percent. Singapore’s blend of market forces, public provision and personal responsibility shows it is possible to do more with less. I applaud President Obama for taking on the health-care challenge and for persisting in spite of wrongheaded GOP charges that his extension of Mitt Romney’s reform in Massachusetts is a “socialist takeover.” Repealing President Obama’s legislation would be a terrible step backward. But the law can be dramatically improved before it is fully phased in. We should “mend it, not end it.”

I’d tweak President Obama’s reform so that it aims for less costly catastrophic insurance for every American, which would cap health expenses as a percent of income. I’d then give vouchers, or funded health-savings accounts, to folks who need help buying primary and preventive care via the fitness-club model being pioneered around the country (unlimited care for a flat monthly fee). I’d replace today’s malpractice litigation lottery with a system that protects doctors from liability so long as they’ve followed evidence-based best practices. This would put an end to the “defensive medicine” that runs up costs — a common-sense reform that Democrats shamefully reject as a sop to the trial lawyers who fund their campaigns. It’s also time we got corporations out of the business of running our welfare state — they’ve got enough to do to compete with China and India — and ensure that every American has access to group rates through health reform’s insurance exchanges.

4. Rein in Wall Street. The banking system is now more concentrated than it was before the financial crisis. There are two ways to avoid the “too big to fail” threat that still exists. We can limit the risks these big banks take — though regulators don’t have a great track record of getting this right. The most important thing we can do, therefore, is make sure big banks have enough capital to absorb any conceivable losses. Yet bank lobbyists are now swarming Washington to keep capital requirements low – in part because higher levels of capital reduce what top bankers can pay themselves. Their bonuses are often based on such metrics as a firm’s “return on equity,” which can be goosed by continually piling debt atop a tiny equity base. That’s Wall Street’s plan. Heads, I win; tails, taxpayers lose. Again.

Fixing this is not complicated, it just takes the will to reject the banks’ demands. I would boost capital requirements for our “too big to fail” banks toward 20 percent, as Switzerland has done — well beyond the inadequate 5-percent to 7-percent levels bank lobbyists are counting on. I’ll also ban “naked credit default swaps” – those fancy securities that let traders buy the financial equivalent of insurance on other people’s lives. These instruments serve no social purpose other than to enrich the bankers who peddle them while turning our financial system into the casino that just cost millions of Americans their jobs. The banks will squeal, but does anyone think we should listen to their pleas after their greed, mismanagement and poor judgment nearly brought down the world economy? It’s time for finance to serve our broader society, not the other way around. And it’s past time to prosecute those whose crimes contributed to the crisis.

5. Fix our broken political system. We’ll never get where we need to go unless we deepen our democracy. I have several proposals that go beyond the usual “small ball” in this terrain, so please keep an open mind.

First, let’s enter everyone who votes in a national election into a lottery. Prizes could range from $10 million for a winner to dozens of $1 million runners-up. For a modest cost, this would lift turnout from today’s pathetic 60 percent in presidential years, and one-third in off-years, closer to 100 percent every time. Unorthodox? You bet. But we need to shake things up.

Next, on campaign finance, we should stop deluding ourselves that we can ever get private money out of politics. We can’t. It’s like ants in the kitchen. You plug one hole and they come back somewhere else. Instead, let’s offset this private cash by giving each voter 50 publicly funded “patriot dollars” to contribute to the candidate or cause of her choice in national elections. This would introduce $6 billion each election cycle — more than enough to offset private donations. And it would encourage candidates to appeal to average Americans rather than just grovel before wealthy donors. Pair this publicly funded voucher with instant Web-based disclosure of all donations and we’d have a far more level, transparent playing field.

Finally, let’s lower the voting age to 15. From debt to schools, and climate to pensions, the distinctive feature of public life today is a shocking disregard for the future. Yes, politicians blather on about “our children and grandchildren” all the time – but when it comes to what they do, the future doesn’t have a vote. We should give our elected leaders a reason not simply to praise children but to pander to them. A crusade to amend the constitution to lower the voting age would inspire a generation that’s being robbed by the adults in power to enter the arena and raise its voice.

It’s also time we restored majority rule to America by scrapping the filibuster in the Senate. We can’t govern ourselves if national legislation can be blocked by senators who represent as little as 15 percent of the country.

6. Require national service. The conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. was right: The proper response to the blessings that are every American’s patrimony is gratitude. It’s only right that this be expressed through a period of mandatory service of some kind by every young American, who will not only give back to his country but, in the process, get to know fellow citizens from every race and place and background.

7. Get our fiscal house in order. Finally, I would aim to balance the budget by 2018 and make sure we can sustainably fund the government by enacting measures that would start once the economy has fully recovered and unemployment is back near 6 percent. We’ll need both spending cuts and tax increases borne fairly by every sector of society.

On the spending side, let me mention the three big areas we need to tackle.

First, national security is job one for any president. To make sure that no power can threaten us, I believe we must spend far more than any conceivable rival. But I also believe, in the Eisenhower tradition, that we need to be smart hawks. If Ike were here, he’d say it was crazy that the defense budget is 50 percent higher in real terms than it was throughout the Cold War. That’s why I’d insist we spend seven times more than China – but not nine times more, as our two political parties want; 13 times more than Russia, but not 17 times more; and 26 times more than Iran, North Korea and Syria combined – but not 33 times more. The result would be an annual military budget of $550 billion, not $700 billion.

Second, on Social Security, the path to solvency starts with a fresh look at automatic increases built into the system that few Americans are aware of — increases that no politician dares mention for fear of being attacked for “cutting” Social Security. I’m not talking about the way benefits are hiked each year to keep up with inflation; no problem there. But under today’s formulas, the starting benefits for future retirees are substantially higher than for current retirees. For example, today, medium wage retirees get a starting benefit of about $18,000. Similar retirees in the year 2030 are slated to get roughly $24,000 in today’s dollars; by 2050, the number in today’s dollars rises to $29,000. Doubling the number of retirees on Social Security as the boomers age is a major fiscal challenge. Promising a 60 percent increase in starting benefits on top of this creates a budget hole that is frightening.

Advocates for these built-in increases, which didn’t exist before the late 1970s, say Social Security should always replace the same portion of wages as it does today; since real wages will grow as the economy grows, so should benefits. That’s a worthy objective. But in an era when health care and pensions for seniors are poised to crowd out cash for every other public priority, or else require tax increases beyond what anyone thinks would be good for the economy, that shouldn’t be our only objective.

Halting these automatic benefit escalators a few years from now would make Social Security solvent in one stroke. It would assure that every retiring senior receives slightly higher benefits than new retirees do today. Yet it would leave America the room to address new needs down the road. This is the kind of action a prudent nation takes. If, years from now, we think seniors need additional protection, 76 million baby boomers will be breathing down our politicians’ necks clamoring for it.

Third, it’s the same with Medicare. Given how inefficient our health-care system is, we simply have to establish targets that get growth in health costs in line with the growth rate of our economy, and ideally something well below that. We know this is possible, because every other advanced nation does more with less. And it’s the only way to free up resources to invest in the infrastructure, education, and research and development that fuels long-term growth.

For both Social Security and Medicare, we’ll also need to phase in higher eligibility ages to reflect the longer lifespans Americans now enjoy — with eligibility exceptions for those engaged in physical labor. Higher-income Americans will also need to contribute something more to these programs, and receive a bit less, to make the boomers’ golden years affordable for the country.

Getting our fiscal house in order will also mean higher taxes. New taxes on dirty energy would push markets toward the clean energy solutions that reduce carbon emissions and our dependence on unstable foreign regimes. And we could offset the impact on folks with lower incomes with lower payroll taxes. I would challenge the oil companies to support this vision, as several did when Ross Perot proposed higher gas taxes in 1992. I would also introduce a tiny tax on Wall Street trading transactions and a 50 percent tax bracket for Americans earning more than $5 million a year. This isn’t an attempt to “punish” anyone’s success — it’s about asking the most fortunate among us to help in ways that won’t affect their lifestyle or incentives. Finally, I’d end the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, not just for those earning more than $250,000. Anyone who looks honestly at the numbers knows this is necessary as our population ages.

Some people will say these ideas involve too much tough medicine and too little optimism. But I am optimistic. I believe Americans are ready for the sturdier brand of hope that comes from dealing squarely with the facts. And if we come together for a decade of renewal, we’ll emerge with an America that’s more competitive, sustainable and just. We won’t have to storm the beaches of Normandy or Guadalcanal. We’ll just have to accept slightly higher taxes and some trims in future spending on programs we like, and we’ll have to commit to making our health care and education systems more productive. We’ll need to think creatively about the national interest, not just our own. Isn’t a stronger America worth these modest sacrifices?

As you may have noticed, I haven’t said anything about abortion, the death penalty, guns or gay marriage. These are important issues, but they’re not the most important things a president should address in the years ahead. As a result, I won’t discuss them at all in the campaign. If they’re your top priority, I’m not your candidate.

Can we win with this message and this agenda? That’s up to you. Republicans and Democrats have a longtime lock on things. They’ve rigged the system when it comes to getting on the ballot and raising money.

But two things are clear. First, a third-party movement in 2012 won’t be a “spoiler.” There is little risk of a Ralph Nader-style result that diverts a handful of votes and throws the election to a candidate those voters can’t abide. The terrain this campaign is contesting is very different. Most Americans now tell pollsters they’re open to a third party. The millions of Americans ready to stand behind the banner of pragmatic renewal means we’ll be playing for keeps, not tinkering at the margins.

Plus, we don’t have to win the election to change the country. As historian Richard Hofstadter suggested, the role of third parties in American politics is to sting like a bee and then die. I say, let the stinging begin! If we get 30 percent of the vote, we’ll make more than enough noise to transform the debate. And once we start proving there’s a constituency for honest talk and real answers, there’s no telling where it will lead.

In the end, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve, and I’m wagering most of us think we deserve better. That iron law of politics still holds: Politicians will scramble to lead any parade that forms. Let’s get busy organizing the right parade, and together we might just save the country.

Matt Miller writes a weekly online column for The Post.

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