Diary

New Year, New Congress-- Anyone for some New Ideas, Too?!

You can blame “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?“…

For reasons now hidden from history, Who Wants to be a Millionaire wasn’t considered your garden-variety quiz show when it debuted in 2000. No, it was America’s first “reality show“. In whatever category it was placed, though, it was boffo, ratings-wise, for ABC. At the apex of it’s popularity, WWTBAM was on three nights a week, and it saved the faltering career of Michael Eisner at Disney, which owned ABC Television.

Suddenly, “reality shows” began hatching like fruit-flies in peach season: First came CBS, with “Survivor“. Quickly on the heels of this entry came “Fear Factor“, “The Bachelor“, “The Bachelorette” and so forth, until simply every channel on the dial had a “reality show” (or three), from MTV”s entry “The Osbourne’s” which was rather like witnessing a slow-motion auto accident, watching the brain-addled Ozzy Osbourne stumble around his house, to Total Drama Island on the Cartoon Network.

If there is one thing you can never accuse the mainstream television entertainments of, is fears of the “herd mentality” label. If one channel found a rating bonanza in filming, oh –I don’t know– parking meters ticking away (“Parking Meters of Beverly Hills!“), suddenly every channel would have their version of it (“Parking Meters, 90210“). But, if there is one thing Hollywood manifestly does fear, though, it is the Original Idea. As a kid, I never would have guessed that, by 2010, Hollywood would run through the entire catalog of bad 70’s TV shows to make into full-length feature films. But, then they re-did Starskey and Hutch, and I knew they had a long way to go. And every summer, the list of movie sequels, prequels, and follow-ups far out-strips any new, original movie storyline.

Call it “Fear of the Original Idea”.

Hollywood isn’t the only town that runs screaming into the night when confronted with a New Idea. Detroit was called the “Arsenal of Democracy” by FDR in 1943. Now, here in the after-years, by virtue of their irrational phobia of any new, original idea, Detroit is today more accurately called the “Basket Case of the Nanny State”.

Lee Iaccoca has been flouncing around for almost fifty years as the “Father of the Mustang” when he was President of Ford. But, when Hal Sperlich first showed Iaccoca sketches of a small, mid-priced, sports car in the early 1960’s, Iaccoca looked down his nose and dismissively said “Small cars equal small profits”.  As a salesman, Iaccoca’s instinct was to sell only the things he knew he could sell (based on what he had been able to sell in the past), not dink-fart around with any New Idea. Old Ideas sell. New Ideas are trouble.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Honda was developing a real, from-the-ground-up small sports car, the S500, learning what worked and what didn’t, in it’s ongoing pursuit of making cars people wanted, not cars the automakers wanted to make. Then, OPEC decided in 1973 that it could hold the West hostage, and Detroit scrambled like cockroaches with the light turned “on”, trying to figure out how to build a car of less than 20,000 pounds that didn’t suck gasoline like soda-pop. By then, Honda had already figured it out.

Failure to embrace the New Idea as a cultural touchstone has caused the epicenter of automotive hegemony to flee Detroit, and find commodious lodgings in Tokyo. Other American industries and towns have crashed and burned on the alter of Fear of New Ideas: Electronics, steel, and so forth. Pittsburgh is a shadow of its former self, and Gary, Indiana looks like Beirut, circa 1982.

But, none of these example can stand up against the Mother of All Towns That Fear New Ideas:

Washington, D.C.

For example, Washington has ONE stock response to any national problem: Spend Money.

Terrorists attacking your big cities with jet airplanes? Spend Money! Kids can’t read at school? Spend Money! Farmers growing crops? Send Money! Farmers NOT growing crops? Spend Money! Old people retiring without medical treatment? Spend Money! Is the economy roaring along? Spend Money! Is the economy stalling out? Spend Money! And so forth. Washington is so sclerotic in its thinking, so moribund in its response that it can no longer differentiate between a solution, an effect, or a problem. Every situation arrives in Washington, as varied and different as there are people in America, and it leaves entombed in the same iron-riveted, steam-powered straight jacket: Spend Money.

This is probably the single most stultifying issue that Americans instinctively recognize as the problem of Washington: It is incapable of Original Thought. As I say, this is instinctive in the American People, because they can look at something as functional and staid as a garden hose, and think to themselves: “I have a better idea for washing my car at home”, and then set about creating a whole new industry in home car-washing. We’ve built financial empires on things as silly as pizza and hamburgers. We are a nation whose very DNA is imprinted with Original Thought. We came to this place for the very reason it was new, it was original. We simply love new, exciting ideas. Out here in the provinces, we don’t fear new ideas: we rush toward them headlong, and give them arm-flailing bear hugs.

And yet, our government is encrusted, besotted with Original Idea Phobia that resembles a form of rigor mortis on the body politic. And thus, we are in hock to the tune of $68 trillion in unfunded social liabilities.  Not only is “spend money” the default Washington public-policy setting, it is the ONLY Washington public-policy setting. Washington cannot, quite literally, stop spending. It has, hitherto, been incapable.

Hitherto, mind you; But, we have the nascent formulation of a tectonic plate-shifting movement arriving in Washington, even as I write this. These people are NEW. They aren’t part of the same old, same old. They are the Tea Party Congress.

So, let’s expect —expect— a flurry of exciting, new ideas, rather like visiting an Auto Show: We know these whiz-bang, Buck Rogers-type models may never come to market, but, at least there is some exciting thinking going on. Let’s encourage New Thought. Let’s kindle in our new lawmakers a sense that its perfectly acceptable to embrace their Inner Entrepreneur, and apply it to the byzantine problems we face as a nation.

One occurs to me, for example.

In 2005, George W. Bush announced he was going to “spend some political capital” (-more spending!) on a crusade to fix the inevitable insolvency of Social Security. It was a noble undertaking. –He was shown the door of public debate as quickly as a bartender at a temperance meeting. Part of the reason for the quick departure of the discussion was that only alternative given to shipping vast sums of money to Washington to provide for an old-folk pension was to ship it instead to Wall Street: No alternatives, no Original Thinking. Washington, or Wall Street. Take your pick.

But, we entrepreneurs look at that Herculean pile of cash sent to Washington in FICA and other payroll taxes to fund Social Security and we say: Behold the Possibilities

Here’s one: Federally Chartered Local Retirement Savings Banks. Imagine a national network of boutique-style banks with unique charters that allow them to be the depositors of the payroll taxes collected in a given geographic area. Each bank would have it’s own Board of Directors, elected by the people in that district. They would be charged with the same responsibilities as other banks: to equitably lend, to maintain the strictest fiduciary trust, and turn a profit.

Each Local Retirement Savings Bank would insure its depositors, along the lines of the FDIC. And, each depositor would have a readily available accounting of all deposits made in their name in the local Retirement Bank. The primary difference between a retirement savings bank, and a typical commercial bank is that depositors could not remove their deposits without substantial penalty (unless simply moved to another Retirement Bank), and, by virtue of their seed capital being acquired through compulsion, Retirment Banks would be required to fund certain local charitable activities with a small percentage of the profits they produce, or provide low-interest loans to start-up businesses; or, even send a small portion back to Washington to help keep the Social Security system (which would have to be kept on the books for a generation or so, until we fully fund the retirement banks) afloat.

This would keep the deposits of each depositor within immediate reach–available for inspection; the money would be kept locally, and would increase and expand the amount of lendable capital in each community, thus helping keep interest rates low.

But, best of all, the money would stay out of Washington, and if only a handful of Retirement Banks fail, the whole system wouldn’t collapse, as Social Security most certainly will, if it’s course isn’t reversed. And, the carrot would be the profit motive: The more profit a Retirement Bank achieves, the more good it can do for local charities; Those on the political Right and the political left would clamor for better profits, year over year. In the long run, this would help ease the strain on social welfare programs, and it would increase commercial activity at the local level.

The building program for such a system of banks would be enormous, creating thousands of jobs. Staffing, supplying and maintaining the facilities would also create long-term, valuable employment. There would be accountability, which there manifestly is not in the Social Security system as it is presently constituted. And, Retirement Savings Banks fit nicely into what I hope will be a tsunami of activity which returns us to a form of New Federalism.

New ideas are not only good public policy, they are exciting and invigorating, and vigor is a wonderful trait for a forward-thinking society. By contrast, Barack Obama and his gang of moth-eaten democrats stand on the shoulders of 19-century solutions to 18th-century problems, problems that were first articulated by Dickens, and posited by Bismark, and “solved” by Marx. New Liberal solutions are transparently NOT solutions, and they are not “new”: most of them are two centuries old.

There is no time like the present for New Ideas. New Federalism. New Congress. New Year. And Lots of New Ideas. It’s exciting to think about.