January 31, 2006

The Ice Cream Party and the Spinach Party: Three proposals to put a little pleasure back into our domestic politics. (Walter Russell Mead, 02/06/2006, Weekly Standard)

during the transit strike I used the time I saved from commuting to put together some proposals that met three criteria: Each had to be popular, practical, and consistent with conservative principles. Some are new, some are old, but all are ideas that, it seems to me, would benefit both the American people and the political party that proposed them.

THE FIRST IDEA, not surprisingly given my personal circumstances the other month, has to do with telecommuting. […]

Working with state and local governments and with business leaders, the federal government should encourage public and private enterprises to develop emergency plans that would allow as many workers as possible to work from their homes or from nearby satellite work sites during an emergency–and develop plans to protect the country’s telecommunications infrastructure as well. More than half the American workforce now has jobs that can be done from home at least in part; if public and private employers put emergency plans in place, we can significantly degrade the ability of terrorists to disrupt our lives. […]

HERE’S ANOTHER ICE CREAM IDEA. Maybe not on the same scale, but it’s something the government could do, and something most people would like quite a lot.

Let’s cut the transaction hassles and costs on residential real estate. For the large majority of American families, their homes are their largest investment. Building a national market in which people can freely and easily buy and sell homes has not only helped generations of Americans acquire property and learn about finance; it’s also contributed to the flexibility of the American economy by enabling people to move around the country in search of opportunity and jobs.

Yet as anybody who has tried it knows, there’s a lot of red tape and cost when it comes to buying or selling a house. Closing costs are mysterious, arcane, and to a large degree the consequence of an inefficient system that is often deliberately designed to provide comfortable niche livings for various otherwise useless professionals. The free market is taking care of some of these costs as banks keep losing loans to cheaper Internet lenders and as the competition among realtors leads to fee cutting. But there are plenty of costs that can only be cut with government pressure–to, for example, put title information into computer-searchable databases so that title searches and title insurance would cost pennies rather than hundreds of dollars.

This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Congress could direct Fannie Mae to require gradual reductions in the fees and paperwork associated with conforming loans. States that adopted new and more efficient methods of title registry and deed conveyance could get some help from the federal government to modernize their systems. […]


There is no reason the government should try to prevent American families who value the traditional college experience from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, but perhaps it could offer an alternative: a federally recognized national baccalaureate (or ‘national bac’) degree that students could earn by demonstrating competence and knowledge.

With input from employers, the Department of Education could develop standards in fields like English, the sciences, information technology, mathematics, and so on. Students would get certificates when they passed an exam in a given subject. These certificates could be used, like the Advanced Placement tests of the College Board, to reduce the number of courses students would need to graduate from a traditional college. And colleges that accepted federal funds could be required to award credits for them.

But the certificates would be good for something else as well. With enough certificates in the right subjects, students could get a national bac without going to college. Government agencies would accept the bac as the equivalent of a conventional bachelor’s degree; graduate schools and any organization receiving federal funds would also be required to accept it.

Subject exams calibrated to a national standard would give employers something they do not now have: assurance that a student has achieved a certain level of knowledge and skill.

Forget terrorists, telecommuting is pro-family and anti-gasoline.