1) The current cover story in Time is about how this recession (depression, whatever) is actually a good thing. I haven't read the story yet, but just seeing the cover and hearing a story on the radio about gas prices rising back above $2/gal. sparked a discussion.
We both agree that gas prices should be higher, more in line with the rest of the world. I know that isn't popular, but the best way to alter behavior is to make other options more attractive. "But that will hit poor people hardest" is always the rebuttal. Here's my proposal for a solution to that problem:
Transportation credits on taxes similar to the Earned Income Credit, which is on a sliding scale based on income. As a transportation credit, it wouldn't just address gas prices but would help offset public transportation costs, bicycle costs, new shoes or whatever for those who don't drive. Yes, the tax code is already too complex. So why not use it?
If gas went back to $4/gal., it would hurt and a lot of people would alter their behavior by bundling errands, driving less, maybe using mass transit more. They might think twice about moving further from their jobs into a sprawling suburb where they have to drive everywhere. Maybe more people would buy fuel efficient cars and dump gas guzzlers, just like they did last summer. Yes, there would be griping. But we survived the high gas prices and got creative. We started doing things better.
It hurt, but we could afford to drive. Folks who live in poverty were hurt more. But they are hurt by transportation costs already. Here's how a transportation tax credit could work:
12,000 mi./yr. is an average amount of driving I've heard, so if you figure 12,000 mi./yr. divided by a reasonable 25 mi./gal., that is 480 gal./yr. If a tax credit were figured on gas costing $4/gal., consider a $2/gal. credit = $960 maximum credit, then adjust that to a sliding scale on income, maybe with the maximum up to the federal poverty level (fpl), then 75% up to 1.5x fpl, then 50% up to 2x fpl, then phasing out.
2008 federal poverty level for a family of 4 in the 48 contiguous states is $21,200.
2) The cover story in Parade Magazine this week is about our prison system and how it needs rethinking. Once again, I haven't yet read the article, which is by Senator Jim Webb, but the headline and stories I've recently read or heard got me to thinking. New York is currently revamping drug laws to try to keep people out of prison. A quote I heard in regards to that story was to the effect that we should lock up people we are afraid of, not people we are mad at.
Think about that. How many people are in prison for crimes that maybe shouldn't involve jail time? How many are in prison because we are mad at them?
So, here's an idea. In parenting books, they always recommend suiting the punishment to the crime. How about if our penal system did the same? Violent criminals would still be imprisoned, but a lot of people would not be. From what I've read, a lot of people agree that a lot of drug crimes have excessive penalties dating back to the 70's and 80's. How about rehab and community service? White collar criminals could be sentenced to years of community service along with reparation. For example, 6 years of working 8 hours a day at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter would give something back, maybe teach a lesson, and would keep tax payers from footing the bill of sending someone to prison. Think about folks sentenced to prison for tax evasion. Not only are they not making money to pay their back taxes, but the tax payers are footing the bill for their living expenses.
Why are we looking to build new jails because our current ones are overcrowded? Why are we looking to spend more money when jail has not been proven to deter crime? Think about the cost savings. Think about this as well: defense lawyers are required at the trial for any crime that involves the possibility of prison but are not required for lesser punishments. Would this help our clogged up justice system work faster? Maybe.
I'd love to hear and read other ideas and even thoughts on my ideas. The point is to start getting creative to find solutions.