There Oughta Be a Law

For my day job I lobby to make government more open and transparent. But I have many ideas about other things government should (or should not) be doing. Some are smart, some are stupid, some are silly, and they are all here for your entertainment.

• • •

KIDS AND FAMILIES

Help pregnant moms and new parents.

One key to a healthy life is having a healthy start. But too many pregnant women do not have access to the foods, vitamins, and health care necessary to ensure And many new parents need help starting off.

In Cuba, of all places, birth outcomes (as measured as low birth weight) are significantly better than in many places in the US. This is because Cuba has implemented programs that provide free screening for pregnant mothers, free vitamins and health care, and have nutritionally-balanced foods available to pregnant moms upon request. We should do this too.

But care should not stop upon birth. For three-quarters of a century, Finland has provided new parents a baby-start kit (or its cash equivalent) which isn’t much). The kid includes bed sheets and a mattress, diapers, clothes, some formula, and other supplies. Finns point to a strong decrease in infant mortality as a consequence of the program. We also should do this.

Combining pre-natal care and post-birth care, we can ensure we put our kids on a strong, healthy foundation that will make them healthier, less susceptible to illness, and reduce costs over the cost of their lifetimes.

Parental leave for Feds.

When it comes to parental leave (paid or otherwise), the US fares poorly. And federal employees fare worse than many private sector employees.

Of the 38 industrialized countries surveyed by Pew, the US comes in last for protected leave and paid leave. Under federal law, employers with more than 50 employees must provide 12 weeks unpaid leave to new parents. This is known as protected leave — where you cannot be fired for taking time off. The US is tied for worst place with Mexico. As for paid leave, the US does not provide for pay for new parents, as compared with all other countries surveyed, who do.

Some companies in the US private sector go above the minimum and provide either more time or some form of pay. Federal employees, however, receive no paid leave. Some will convert their vacation and sick time to cover absences from work, but agencies do not officially allow the use of sick time for paternity leave (some look the other way). And vacation time is slowly accumulated, so new parents, who likely are younger, may not have accumulated enough vacation time to get paid for their time out of work.

This is silly and counterproductive. At a minimum, federal employees should be afforded paid parental leave — at least 6 weeks per child, and longer preferably. (Ideally, at least double). And because it is parental leave, it is available to both parents. I would suggest 6 weeks paid and 6 weeks unpaid, with the unpaid leave able to be converted to paid leave through use of sick or vacation time. (President Obama agrees, up to a point, and recently suggested something similar.)

The US also should look at a way of expanding protected leave, which some local governments already do, and decide on a mechanism to fund some parental leave (perhaps up to a certain number of kids or a set period of days).

TAXES AND RETIREMENT

Government does your taxes.

The federal government collects enough information for the IRS to do your taxes for you and send you a completed form to review. But lobbying by the tax preparation industry has stopped the IRS from providing this service. Going forward, the IRS must provide to taxpayers a first-draft of their tax forms, for review and approval by the taxpayer.

3% for retirement.

The most powerful way to save money for retirement is to start young and put money away consistently. But filling out the form and choosing which plan to invest in is sufficiently difficult that many people when they start a new job put it off. That decision costs them thousands of dollars, and perhaps much more if there’s an employer match for retirement money.

I suggest a slight change: when starting a new job, the employer automatically sets retirement savings at 3%, to be placed in the least expensive index fund (or select year fund, if it is cheaper), unless the employee affirmatively decided to change the amount invested or the funds selected. This automatic selection should be eligible to receive any matching funds. The employee retains complete control over investment decisions, but the default is towards some savings. As we have seen in studies, this type of arrangement preserve employee decision-making power while nudging towards more beneficial behavior.

Employer retirement plans.

Employers offer a wide array of retirement plans including many that provide access to mutual funds. For these plans to be maximally helpful to employees, however, there must at least be the option of plans with low fees, especially passive investment index funds. Yet what we see is the broker-dealers who provide plans to companies often put such high fees onto passive investment index funds that a significant amount of the profits are eaten away to benefit the broker-dealer, not the employee.

For employee retirement plans that include multiple index funds, employer-provided plans should include at least one index fund (that is tied to stock market performance) that is at no more than 25 basis points above the cost of the fund on the free market; and that fund chosen from the free market must be in the bottom 10% of those available that cover that particular index. In other words, the index fund chosen must have few fees and cannot have much additional markup added by the broker-dealer the employer contracts with.

LAW AND ORDER

Rape kits.

Many local governments have huge rape kit backlogs. The ability of these kits to solve crimes is tremendous, but local governments often do not prioritize their resolution. The federal government shall be authorized to make loans at low rates to help municipalities pay for the resolution of these backlogs, which must be reduced by at least 10% a year (until only a handful remain). As motivation, municipalities which do not decrease rape kit backlog by 10% annually (down to a very low number remaining) jeopardize the receipt of grants and loans from the federal government and federal investment in the area (including highway funds).

Voting.

The right to vote is sacrosanct but all too often barriers stand in the way of people’s ability to exercise that right. Either election day is made a federal holiday (so many people do not have to work) or it should be moved to the Saturday and Sunday preceding the usual voting day. Ultimately, extended early voting, vote-by-mail, and other methods to make it easier to vote should be implemented. (Also, the nonsense about stringent voter IDs really should end.)

DAY TO DAY

More federal holidays.

Compared to other countries, Americans work somewhat more than other industrialized countries. We have 10 federal holidays but they’re not evenly distributed. New Years’ Day to MLK Day is just a few weeks, but Independence Day to Labor Day is two months.

There should be a federal holiday each month. It’s good for people and the economy and it’s more fun. We need three: in May, June, in August. I’m sure we can gin up some kind of appropriate cultural or historical figure to celebrate those days, but the best celebration is a day off.

For example, May could have Constitution Day (around May 25th), for the start of the constitutional convention. June could celebrate the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (around the 14th). August could have Explorer’s Day, with the birth of one of the Wright brothers in mid-august (the 18th).

Permanent daylight’s saving time.

DST was initially created in the UK at the start of the 20th century because an avid golfer wanted to keep the courses open later and later expanded as a coal-saving move during WWI. (At least that’s what Wikipedia says). It was abandoned by most countries, only to be reintroduced in the 1970s as an energy-savings measure. With modern homes and businesses, the energy savings are in doubt, and it survives as an anachronism, recently expanded by 5 weeks in 2005 (so it starts earlier and ends later).

DST is complicated, provides no real benefits, and may actually cause harm (an increase in traffic deaths, misalignment of times between the US and other countries). The time of day should not be adjusted based on when the sun rises and sets. The majority of the year the sun rises later in the morning and sets later on in the day, and that’s the way it should be.

High school starts later.

Studies have repeatedly shown that teenager’s body clock is later than adults — they go to sleep later and wake up later. But many high school’s start very early in the morning; mine started at 7:20 and required getting up at 6am. If we really want kids to do well in school we have to set them up for success.

No public school system should be appropriated funds (with a few limited exceptions) unless the school day starts at least at 9am, if not later. For those worried about after school athletics: (1) your priorities are in the wrong order, (2) schools will figure it out, but (3) change how daylight savings time works.

ENVIRONMENT

Geothermal head pumps.

Large buildings require a lot of power, but because of the nature of investment (whether for commercial or public buildings), geothermal heat pumps are rarely considered as an option. While expensive up front, they are inexpensive in the long run. Buildings over a certain size should be eligible to receive loans to construct geothermal energy sources that are competitive with current rates provided by more traditional sources of energy.

Lawn mowers.

Lawn mowers are surprisingly polluting because their 2-stroke engine results in incomplete combustion. (Leaf blowers are also very dirty). In fact, lawn movers constitute 10% of pollution from mobile sources, according to the EPA. They should be required to meet a higher standard, or perhaps be replaced by electric powered mowers or other types of entities.

SUVs.

SUVs should have to meet the same pollution standards as cars. This should phase in over a few years. The category of SUV (or sports utility vehicle) was not initially thought of as a mode of transit for regular commuting; if people use it that way, the vehicles should be held to the same standard.

GOVERNMENT ADMINISTRATION

Secret shoppers.

Few things are as annoying as long waits at government agencies (think the DMV) with often surly employees. The government should employ secret shoppers to make sure services are rendered quickly and efficiently as well as to make sure the data being reported back on activities are accurate.

I’m not going to get into other government administration issues as that starts to relate to my day job.

{ Liked this? You may also like Top 5 Federal OpenGov Efforts }

— Daniel Schuman