Some say it is not enough to decry the impending apocalypse, but instead we must put forward a positive vision of the future. Personally I think a future in which my friends aren’t dying is a positive vision; but let’s assume, for a second, that there’s some merit to the point. If we free ourself from the shackles of Republican governmental control, what would a better government look like? How can we get to utopia from here?


So that’s what I am going to do in this article. Instead of worrying about the political considerations that makes this future improbable, I’m going to share a path I think would be an effective means of reintegrating the federal government into the life of its citizens. These are the type of policies that I think a truly progressive government could use to push back many of the “small government” lies that have so thoroughly hamstrung past efforts to improve the quality of life in this nation. Because, for so many things, the government is the cheapest cost avoider. Working on economies of scale, without a profit motive, means there are many things the government can do for less money than privatized corporations can, while providing a higher level of service.


The backbone of my vision is a massive expansion of the social safety net. In my dream future, the government takes on an ambitious building project, funded by the ultra-rich. The explicit purpose would be to expand the social safety net geographically so that people would always be close to a federal building; the implicit purpose is to remind rural folk that the government is there for them, and employing them or their neighbors.


Side note: when I was a baby my “tiny town” had a cute little post office building that got shut down. The building remained, just empty, rotting for years. Instead they rented space in a local strip mall, which was cheaper, I presume. This continued until I was about ten, at which point even that branch got shut down, and then we had to go the town over to get our mail. Because of the weird area in which we lived, that wasn’t a particularly onerous burden. But imagine if that’s an additional hour to each side of your trip. That means whenever you need the feds you have to deal with a travel burden that makes it feel like the government doesn’t value your time or your money. That’s bad for buy in.


We could solve this, but it will take an infrastructure project of some size. The goal would be to ensure all folk live within a certain range of a federal building, making the government real to some people who currently don’t have much of a reason to see interacting with the feds as anything more than a nuisance. These would all be new buildings, architecturally interesting like we used to make back in the day. This has a dual purpose. On the one hand, the need for new construction would mean that there would be building jobs in every location, rather than taking the cheaper route and stuffing them in existing buildings (which would be significantly less effective stimulus and reward landowners over laborers). On the other hand, a government’s building stands for the government, and our government buildings fucking suck. So how the hell are they supposed to feel good about feds who work in the most utilitarian, ugly, common boxes that currently make up most of the federal buildings? They’re run down, dirty. They don’t look healthy. They don’t inspire positivity about your government. We need to change that.


The point to expand social services would be key, though. People need to not only receive more services, improving their quality of life, but they should receive those services in a context that reminds them of the government’s largess. “Get your government out of my Medicare” was a telling cry, back when Obama was revamping the health insurance system. If people weren’t associating one of their most important benefit programs with the entity providing it, that is a failure of marketing and branding. People need to think of concrete ways in which their life have been improved by the government, and everyone should be getting something back for what they pay in. Otherwise, you end up where we are today, where the people most dependent on federal money propping up their lives are the ones most resistant to a federal hand.


It’s for this reason I think these buildings should all contain a free clinic, with at least one doctor and one nurse. A lot of places don’t have sufficient access to medical care, and a government free clinic could relieve stress on local emergency rooms. This could also be an opportunity for a (needed) expansion of a (fixed) judiciary, so that people in every county have access to a local impartial judge who isn’t being paid or elected. That would mean a judge, a court clerk, a stenographer, and a bailiff. You’d also need a couple, let’s say two, general purpose clerks to handle paperwork questions and do all that customer service stuff, including helping people access benefits. When people come to discuss their benefits, they should be meeting with a person familiar with the full range of programs, and not get shuffled between different departments.


Add in an inspector, who could look into issues for the federal government on almost a freelance basis (mostly doing building inspections, with some minor criminal justice roles). Make room for a social worker, who can teach classes on parenting, help LGBTQ youth avoid homelessness, and do outreach to community individuals with persistent mental health or child abuse issues. To keep everything running you’d need an office manager and two custodians; this would all fall under the oversight of a branch manager. That’s what, fourteen jobs? Round it out to fifteen, add one more staff to be adjusted to whatever role needs them most in that location. Fifteen jobs per county would be a hell of a lot of stimulus, and could do a hell of a lot of good.


But this would be just the baseline; most offices would need (and have) more employees commensurate with their population and need. In places where there are not many people, employees would be imported, but would have to live in the community. This would ensure population flow to the parts of the country where there isn’t much cause for immigration. A side benefit of that could be transferability, making it easier to move between branch locations. These would be good jobs for one member of a two-parent family. One of the things which has eroded labor’s power in America is how two-income families find it harder to move to a new location for work since it typically means at least one spouse will have to forgo their employment. And this is on top of all of the other factors which make it hard in America to pick up and move. We can’t fix all of that (though generous benefits at the federal level could certainly provide people with the buffer needed to move), but we could at least make it as easy to transfer between different governmental offices as it currently is to transfer between Starbucks locations.


How would we pay for this? I, for one, think we should go back to the Eisenhower tax brackets, specifically the 90% top tax rate for all income made beyond a reasonable cut-off. And, to avoid the ability for the ultra-rich to skip out on these taxes due to their rent-seeking ways, it would be paired with a massive increase on the capital gains tax and the estate tax. These three tweaks to the tax code alone could raise an incredible amount of money, and the ahistorical nature of American memories aside, are in line with past social contracts. At the very least it would be enough to support a universal basic income, something our soon-to-be-postwork nation desperately needs.


(Another reason for a massive program like this would simply be to create more jobs that are not totally valueless. Valueless work is soul-crushing, and being there for your neighbors quite rewarding. This expansion would provide more workforce capacity, and the financial stimulus would further expand the need for ancillary businesses like retail and foodservice that are available to people independent of their educational privilege.)


“But what effect will that have on the American entrepreneurial spirit?” Thanks for asking, scarecrow! As is, the people who do the most American innovation are small business owners. However, a country with terrible social safety nets means that many small business owners end their brush with entrepreneurship in financial ruin, broken down by the ancillary costs like health insurance and the need to draw a personal salary to live on at a point where your business is not making enough money to support that. And what about those entrepreneurs whose business ideas are so novel that they don’t yet have a model revenue stream? Or those artists whose work appreciates with time. Or game/software designers, who have to suck up to incubators and venture capitalists as is to get the space to make a program which will then be perverted towards the incentives of profit at the expense of the consumer. These are all types of entrepreneurship that are hindered by the shabby safety net. These could all lead to new and interesting things for America.


Expanding the social safety net, making a ton of new federal buildings, staffing them with local folk, and making sure the benefits are easy to access and err on the side of generosity would make for a strong, progressive plan to rebuild America as the good nation I was taught it wanted to be. Letting thousands starve so some fifty people make a killing is grotesque, and is the actions of America at its utter worst. So let’s not be bad; let’s be better. Let us push for these sort of sweeping policies, as they are the best hope we have of breaking the GOPs hold on the rural parts of this nation.


That they would improve quality of life generally, and provide a great deal of economic stimulus, is just a bonus we’d get for doing something right, not left. No more half-assed corner-cutting compromises. If we want the system to change, we have to make big plays, and shoot for goals that offer benefit to everyone.


We can do that. We just need to start pushing for audaciously progressive changes to the morally bankrupt fashion in which this nation is currently run. If we don’t bet big, we may as well go home… and another decade of GOP control and who among us will have homes to return to?

Jess Stirba dreams of a better tomorrow.

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