One of my more recent posts focused on what you as an individual can do to change the U.S. economy for the better. Today I want to offer suggestions for what government can do. My emphasis is on local-level government because you have a greater degree of influence there; and local initiatives that prove successful often get adopted at state, regional, and national levels later.
Stop insisting that economic salvation must come from elsewhere. The traditional strategy for stimulating local economies is to offer tax breaks and other incentives to out-of-state, even multi-national, corporations that promise to provide jobs in your city or town. This is almost never sustainable in the long term. When some other city or state offers a better deal, the company flees to that place. Further, the "good jobs" that require technical skills receive applications from everywhere, or may even be outsourced to another country. Exactly who is winning here?Provide help and incentives to local businesses. Take those tax breaks and incentives you offer out-of-state corporations and start applying them to local enterprises. This is key in building a stable, unique, and respected economy. Offset hikes in minimum wage, utilities, and other overhead expenses that big, established companies can withstand without any help, by giving local businesses tax credits and other help. Require banks to put local start-ups ahead of big business when it comes to loans and other investments. Employment opportunities must include the opportunity to make your own employment.
Raise the minimum wage. We have heard the same tired arguments for and against, but consider this: Many individuals earning minimum wage are holding two or three jobs, or several part-time jobs just to pay their bills. Raising the minimum wage would thus increase employment opportunities as these people are able to drop one or more jobs. The decrease in stress on these workers also relieves all of us of collective healthcare burdens, allows parents to spend more time with their families, recreate, and otherwise enhance their physical and emotional well-being. Productivity goes up as each worker is taxed less in the physical sense.
Stop criminalizing homelessness and poverty. Here in Colorado Springs, the City Council has written ordinances designed not to address the roots of homelessness and poverty, but to simply erase it from public view. I know this because no councilperson has voiced objection to the homeless camps in our stream corridors where the average businessperson or shopper never ventures. Making it a crime to panhandle, or even sit or lie down on the sidewalk in certain parts of town, is an effort to protect wealthy people from shame and guilt.
Improve urban planning. In many municipalities, one could simply ask for urban planning period. Annexation to boost tax revenue may be appealing, but the cost of providing utilities, public transportation, and other amenities quickly overruns those gains. Having lived in Portland, Oregon for a fair portion of my life, I can attest to the viability of a semi-flexible "urban growth boundary" that creates a unique urban-rural interface, and allows growth to pay for itself. "Density" is not a dirty word, and walkable neighborhoods are highly sought-after by the new generation of business professionals who put a premium on reduced commutes and vibrant communities. Urban planning attracts desirable..."elements."
Broaden educational opportunities. Learning is a life-long commitment, but few cities or towns make continuing education a priority. Sure, there are online alternatives, but workshops, conferences, and traditional classrooms are still important. Opportunities for informal education through museums, libraries, and parks are not always publicized enough, and are certainly under-funded. Boost monetary allocations to reflect an interest in keeping citizens ahead of the curve and able to transition to newly-created occupations.
Promote multicultural festivals and events. Diversity is a strength of all communities, but too often we do not even know our neighbor. We may not even speak the same language. Festivals and events give citizens a chance to learn about other cultures by reaching beyond stereotypes and assumptions, and actively engaging with others in-person.
Prioritize public health and safety. This goes beyond law enforcement and an adequate number of hospitals. We have had enormous failures across the country in providing safe drinking water, healthy air quality, and safe transport of hazardous materials. We cannot tolerate privatization of water resources, or relax regulations designed to protect us from abuse by corporations trying to skirt the law when it comes to flammable, toxic substances. We need to tighten regulations, if anything.
Become innovative with taxation. Increases in sales taxes have been repeatedly used to fund what should be standard budget items like infrastructure maintenance. Such regressive applications hit the poorest citizens the hardest, and cost overruns often exceed the revenues generated anyway. Get creative. Why not a parking tax to encourage use of public transit, the revenue actually going to improved public transit? I am in no way an expert on taxation, but it is clear to me that we need to apply some serious brainpower to creating alternatives to the traditional, outdated code.
Empower citizens whenever possible. Finally, it should be an overriding priority of local governments to reward public initiatives that allow individuals to pursue projects that benefit the community as a whole. Some regulations actually do need relaxing. Ordinances that prevent homeowners from growing their own vegetable gardens, or erecting their own modest wind or solar devices, should be modified or repealed. Innovative ideas should be rewarded whenever possible, and seldom, if ever, punished. A citizen who feels motivated to create something, or share something, be it an idea or something more tangible, is the most valuable citizen of all. Oh, that means everyone is valuable, by the way, and not just as a consumer of goods and services.