two election reform proposals

Topics: Democracy
25 Oct 2008

From: Ervan Darnell

I have two proposals, one to make politicians accountable and the other
to make voters accountable.

1) Binding promises
I've had several debates about who is lying on the campaign trail and who
is not. For instance, many people have told me my tax analysis of
Obama is wrong because he promised not to raise taxes on anyone making
< $250K. That's impossible given what else he has promised (and
indeed, his plan to raise corporate taxes is but a backdoor sales tax,
payroll tax, and investment tax, which will fall on people making <
$250K). I recently asked some Obama supporters to make predictions
for what will be true in 4 years under Obama. They mostly declined
that offer.
This leads me to this proposal: allow candidates to make binding campaign
promises. I'm not sure of the best way to enforce them, but one
possibility is to give every voter legal standing to sue politicians for
breaking those promises. They will be held personally liable, just
like anyone is for signing a contract in bad faith. Of course, they
cannot promise absolute things because legislation has to pass Congress,
but they could promise things like "I will veto any bill that
increase taxes on people earning < $250K/year, absent a legally
declared war." "Any bill that says X without earmarks
beyond $Y, I will sign."
It is my observation that the Obama campaign really is about
"Hope", which is to say it's not about reason. I find
that when I drill down on any particular economic proposal of his with
any reasonably intelligent person, who is not a hardened ideologue, they
eventually agree it won't work, but they still think his plan will work
in the big picture. How can every detail be wrong but the whole
package works? My only conclusion is that people are hoodwinked by
a good salesman. My above proposal is then to create a system so
that candidates have an incentive to actually say something concrete,
something concrete enough that it can be judged in a trial. Perhaps
the vacuity of the smiling face promising to heal all wounds will lose
some its appeal when it dodges ever making a real promise.

2) Pay at the polls
I'm also surprised how many people are completely out of touch with how
expensive Obama's spending plan is ($300G/year [1], i.e. double the
current bailout just over the course of one term). I have yet to
find a single individual who realizes Obama's spending plan is fully
three times as expensive as the Iraq War budget (per year). You
might argue that the war has knock-on costs (indeed, it does), but so do
Obama's welfare plans, and they are likely permanent.
My proposal is this: you must pay at the polls for the first year's cost
of any candidate's plan you vote for (according to your existing tax
bracket and percentage of the expected tax increase). I've heard
many people say, even once they know the magnitude, it's worth it because
of all the good Obama is going to do. Fine, put your money where
your mouth is. Imagine forking over $1000-$5000 just to vote for
Obama. You want "change"? My proposal will bring
change! I bet that 90% of the people who say it's worth it would change
their mind if they had to materialize the cost immediately instead of
having it buried. Is this a gimmick? No, it's honest taxation
(just like abolishing withholding would be).
You might complain this is difficult to arrange, because people won't
vote or politicians will pass legislation other than that promised during
the campaign. These implementation objections can all be fixed in
principle (a more serious problem is people who don't pay taxes get to
vote). My point here is that voting is an exercise in cognitive
dissonance, and I want to close that loop and at least ask rhetorically
what would happen if people were responsible for their behavior at the

Ervan Darnell,

"An election is nothing more than the advanced
auction of stolen goods." --- Ambrose Bierce

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