If you could do one thing...

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2005

A few months ago, Parade Magazine ran an article by Norman Mailer in which he answered the question: if you could do one thing to change America for the better, what would it be? His answer: ban television commericials because the constant interruptions by TV ads were interfereing with our children's ability to concentrate and thus to read and succeed in school and in the world.

I'm not sure Mailer chose the best problem to focus on here (if the "constant interruption" thing is even an issue...look at how long kids stay glued to the television), but I believe he's on the right track in focusing on education. In choosing an answer to this question that would make the most impact, it seems prudent to focus on answers that satisfy two requirements:

1. Get 'em early. Kids are the most malleable members of a society and much significant change starts with the younger generations. Anything that impacts education will likely have a large eventual effect.

2. Choose a course of action with significant emergent behavior and a positive feedback cycle...basically a cascade effect. Find the best place to punch a tiny hole in the dam so the whole thing eventually bursts.

Nothing I have come up with so far satisfies those criteria and you're collectively supposed to be much smarter than I am, so I'm asking you: if you could do one thing to change America for the better, what would it be (and why)?

Reader comments

VaughnJul 14, 2005 at 10:31AM

Why not just fill the TV with enough junk to diminish a child's "desire" to watch tv at all? Fill it with enough crap and random colors, noises, and shows to let them make the conscious choice to not watch television at all.

Maybe after people start dying from enough seizures, people will begin to realize it's a waste of time.

(Maybe im just bitter, but ive gone tv free for the last 2 years, and it's such an improvement.)

RickJul 14, 2005 at 10:32AM

I would change the welfare system, where you would also have to take classes to learn how to get and keep a job, manage your money but also be 'forced' to get a job.

Welfare is not a whole solution even with a job. I would hope with just these changes that it would provide these families, not just with more money, but with more confidence throughout their lives. Therefore building a better future for their kids.

Tom DolanJul 14, 2005 at 10:33AM

I'd somehow change the entire election system so that it was free from any dependence on donations and financial contributions. A poor man should be able to run for office as easily as Ross Perot or John Kerry and it's simply not the reality in America -- and it's getting worse not better. While there are exceptions to any rule, for the large part this poisons American politics and keeps the country governed by a ruling class, more similar than different to the oppressive nobility-driven systems this country's revolution was supposed to change.

R J KeefeJul 14, 2005 at 10:33AM

Make the Senate a more democratic institution and/or reconfigure state lines.

Education is certianly more important than this. But improvements in education cannot work top-down. While I would be tempted to ban televsion altogether, I know that the right thing is to encourage people not to watch it and to hope for the best.

RickJul 14, 2005 at 10:36AM

Tom, I like that idea, not just on a national level, but all the way down to the local level........

Farhan LaljiJul 14, 2005 at 10:38AM

Pay teachers more. By paying teachers more, I believe, more people will go into teaching, reducing class sizes and effectively increasing the amount of time teachers have to spend with individual children. So that the ones who are being left behind have more direct support from teachers who aren't trying to speed through curriculum.

DanJul 14, 2005 at 10:46AM

Being a member of a family full of teachers, I can tell you that most teachers' salaries are adequate. The rural teachers are the ones who get shafted when it comes to pay. And it's the unions that perpetuate the myth of the "underpaid teacher."

Along the same lines, I think it's an absolute joke that more curricula don't include basic personal finance. When kids graduate from high school, they have no idea how to go about their financial future. If you asked a hundred high school seniors what a FICO score is, you could count the correct answers on one hand.

J.D. RothJul 14, 2005 at 10:51AM

I guess while we're talking pipe dreams, I'd advocate the elimination of advertising. Advertising and marketing are insidious practices designed to part you, the consumer, from your hard-earned cash in return from gizmos and widgets and thneeds.

Advertising is the United States is brilliant. It has been honed and perfected over the years so that it operates on a subversive psychological level, infiltrating a person's thoughts even if she believes she's immune to the suggestion.

In the absence of advertising, people would be less inclined to purchase that which they don't need, would be more likely to disengage from the mad consumer race. They would be less compelled to "keep up with the Joneses". They'd save more. They'd be more financially secure. They'd look inward for fulfillment rather than outward at physical objects.

As I say, maybe I'm deluding myself, but if I could make one change, it would be too elimnate advertising.

(Also in the running: the complete elimination of television and the complete elimination of the automobile.)

BenjyJul 14, 2005 at 10:58AM

I'm kind of torn as to whether government or education is the most pressing issue.

- I see the corruption and money=power within the government as a scary shift that continues to take from the many to give to the few. Big business is allowed to get bigger and bigger, replacing many small businesses with low-wage retail positions. Used to be that people could support a family owning a drug store or appliance store -- now those fields are full of $6.00/hr jobs at CVS and Best Buy that usually don't even offer benefits like healthcare. And because there's no universal healthcare and bankruptcy laws are getting stricter for individuals, an illness or injury can ruin a family financially. But hey, at least we got those tax refund checks and shareholders are getting maximum value...

And yet the education system is partly to blame for people allowing the goverment to get to this point. Education has become so fixated on "teaching to the test" that schools don't cover the more relevant issues like economics and civics. How scary is it that a majority of high school students thought the gov't should be allowed to censor the media? We need to teach students not only algebra and spelling, but also what it mean to be part of society, how their participation is important and how/why to understand the issues of the day and make decisions based on reason and logic rather than following the orders of FoxNews talking heads, their clergy or their union steward.

scott parteeJul 14, 2005 at 11:08AM

I think I agree with Mailer, "education" being too vague. If there was one concrete thing I've noticed that could help what's "wrong" with people
I know I've been ruined ;)

beerzieJul 14, 2005 at 11:12AM

Ensure basic survival needs are met. (Adequate shelter, food, and medical care.) The rest will take care of itself.

Alex FoleyJul 14, 2005 at 11:20AM

Farhan had the best idea. The fact that college professors are to an order of magnitude more respected than high school teachers shows us that we have room for improvement. Think about if every teacher's salary was doubled right now (My parents are both teachers, so this is very much for personal reasons). Most teachers would now have a starting salary around $50,000 a year - something that could be built to over $100,000 a year after dedicated service. I know many people would find this salary more than suitable for their way of life. You now have many more bright minds in the high schools and middle schools which leads to a more educated population in general.

And I disagree with banning TV completely. I once read that because of the advanced plot lines and such variety of content in modern television that those who are watching it are actually becoming much smarter. I say have the government invest more in TV. And more broadcast movie channels. I like movies.

kingbennyJul 14, 2005 at 11:21AM

It's hopelessly vague, but I'd like to make sure all children have really good parents, and I don't mean that in the 1940's ideal Christian family sense, I just mean good parents.

barlowJul 14, 2005 at 11:26AM

I think the key is to focus on population. Encourage childbirth and larger family sizes (there are many ways to do it, but I would leave the carrots and sticks a black box for the sake of this post). Right now America is so fragmented and scattered and urban sprawl really facilitates that kind of self-segregation. Our cities in many cases are empty. You wouldn't believe the situation in places like St. Louis where blocks and blocks of empty, formerly glorious houses stand like ghosts. With more children being born, society would be forced to focus on education (as some of you have requested) and the increase in population would be across ethnic lines and self-segregation would become harder and harder. We'd be moving more back into cities, into forced interaction and diversity (especially the younger crowd). Our children would grow up in communities rather than in roads attached to mini-malls. People are our greatest asset, and motivate us to make the most change in this world. The social security system would be counterbalanced by a new baby-boom, thus eliminating one of the more annoying public debates that we have every 40 years. More people means more artists, more engineers, more mothers, more fathers, more leaders, more voices. More people puts strain on the economy, challenging it to production efficiency. More people leads to more innovation. And yes, it makes problems, and problems are opportunities for charity and charity makes people better. We are nowhere near the "physical" limits of population, and every year we learn new ways to feed ourselves, etc. Most of the time answers come only when challenges are present, so I just don't buy the implicit Malthusian impulse that people have concerning population. Bring on the next baby boom and the technologies that will both result from it and make it possible.

Michael BuffingtonJul 14, 2005 at 11:28AM

Somehow (let someone else figure out the details) require all Americans to visit a new foreign country every year, not as tourists, but as volunteers. Oral reports should be given to the community upon return. Root Beer Floats for everyone upon closing.

Kip IngramJul 14, 2005 at 11:29AM

Well, I'd start by saying that we supposedly live in a free society that believes parents should play the primary role in shaping their children's personalities and values. Of course, sometimes parents don't do a good job, but I believe we as a society should be very hesitant about interfering in parental primacy and should do so only under very unusual conditions.

That said, I'd like to take a broad definition of education and run with this idea. I think we need to do everything we can to show, by our words and our deeds, that we live in a society that has the following values:

1. Individuality is good. Look around, and all you see is everyone wanting to climb onto the latest fad, wear the latest fashions, worship the latest celebrity, or whatever. That gives way too much power to the institutions that control those things. People need to think for themselves.

2. There really are enough of us to hurt our world now. It may not be teetering on its last legs now (or it might; I think it's an open question), but sooner or later it will be if we don't learn how to live within our means when it comes to energy, the capacity of the world to absorb our wastes, and so on. We are lazy and spendthrift not only with our money but with the gifts of nature as well.

3. Money isn't the most important thing. Look around again. In the last few decades we (at least the "we" protrayed in the media; see item 1) seem to have lost our last shreds of honor, value, and dignity and given in to an all out stampede for whatever money there is to be had. Living a comfortable, secure life used to be the standard of success; now success seems to require that you be filthy rich and that you crush as many of your friends and peers (see reality TV) as possible on the way to getting there.

4. Technology will be important in our future, and understanding it will help bring success. More people will achieve prosperity as scientists, engineers, and technologists than as singers, actors, and athletes. See item 1 again; we positively worship celebrity in our society. But scientists, engineers, and technologists are the ones who are quietly defining the world that we will live in fifty years from now. Everyone doesn't need to be one of these people, but we should cultivate a little more respect for them than currently exists in our culture.

Well, that's all that comes to mind at the moment, and I'm not exactly sure this is what Jason was going for, but there it is. I may have stepped on some toes; if so then comment here if the comment fits into what Jason asked for; otherwise email me. I love a good discussion. ;-)

TerrellJul 14, 2005 at 11:32AM


science. critical thinking. civics. finance.

a society that values 'better' things will get them in a market economy. be that politics, scientific research, food, entertainment. the key to valuing better things lies in what people know and how they view the world.

the philosophy of science is something lost on a vast majority of people. skepticism is what allows truth about our world to be uncovered. repeatability and falsifiability. if we don't teach our kids how to determine what's going on around them, they'll fall for anything.

an educated populace will demand a better place for us all to live.

we've got to get the best educators in the places where our kids learn. we have to value this as a goal and pay the costs to get them there.

Donnie JeterJul 14, 2005 at 11:33AM

I would... make poverty history.
then I would ban those little colored bands that everyone are wearing (i have a white one on right now, but if we made poverty history, there wouldn't be a need for the band).

jkottkeJul 14, 2005 at 11:41AM

Somehow (let someone else figure out the details) require all Americans to visit a new foreign country every year, not as tourists, but as volunteers.

This is a great idea.

CatherineJul 14, 2005 at 11:49AM

Free secondary education, ala Ireland.

Ryan SobashJul 14, 2005 at 11:50AM

Encouraging the education system to not only teach facts and information to our children, but to increasingly focus on morals and values. Although this is the primary responsibility of parents, too many parents do it no where near effectively. If the parents are doing what should be required of them at home, it wouldn't hurt for kids to learn to be responsible for actions, to be honest, to be loyal, and to follow the Golden Rule in the classroom as well.

I agree with Jason's idea about the positive feedback cycle. Getting an idea like mine implemented isn't as simple as passing a law or requiring new standardized tests, it requires a new mindset about education that will hopefully feedback in great ways for the futures of the children involved.

JoshJul 14, 2005 at 11:50AM

I would give people a hug and tell them hello. That is all that people need, social interaction. It does incredible things.

Del ShimandleJul 14, 2005 at 11:56AM

In a word: Distributionism.

Reading between the lines, the following brief definition, answers many of the above questions (i.e.: advertising/tv commercials/education, etc.) I'm no expert on this philosophy, but find it as good a "what if?" answer as any other out there, if not the best.

That said, here's the definition (from http://mdemarco.web.wesleyan.edu/gkc/distrib/) (emphasis added):

"Also known as distributism and distributionism, distributivism is a political philosophy similar to agrarianism. The means of production should be distributed as widely as possible among the populace; they should neither be hoarded by a oligarchy, nor controlled by the government. Certainly the means of production should not be held by the government in the name of fictitious communal entities, but should be held by individuals in their own hands, or in the case of land, under their own feet. For those projects beyond the scope of an individual or family, a guild system is recommended.

Although the Distributist League was founded in 1926, distributivist ideas predate G. K. Chesterton, Distributivism's most famous proponent. The turn-of-the-century Populist and arts & crafts movements embraced distributivistic goals, as did several literary figures of the day. In more recent times, distributivist ideas have reappeared in the guise of "back to the land" or "Small is Beautiful" movements. True distributivists are unopposed to technology per se but are Luddite in their disgust at machines which disenfranchise people. Distributivists are not so irrational as to pursue progress for its own sake nor so immoral as to do so for the gain of a few at the expense of the many. "

JoelJul 14, 2005 at 11:57AM

Basic micro-economics/personal finance should be taught in ALL high schools. Currently only the better schools offer this and it is often not compulsory. This is a subject that could spare kids horrible credit card debit, other financial pit-falls, and would allow them to see through politician's economic talking points.... plus it's a better life lesson than gym.

BlakeJul 14, 2005 at 11:58AM

Revamp US Health Insurance. If only I had several billion dollars. And while I'm at it, socialize pharmaceuticals while keeping the medical professionals private. This would keep the same high level of medical care, but reduce the overal cost of health expenses. (Pills in Brazil are like $2 for what we pay $100)

jkottkeJul 14, 2005 at 11:58AM

Farhan wrote: Pay teachers more. By paying teachers more, I believe, more people will go into teaching, reducing class sizes and effectively increasing the amount of time teachers have to spend with individual children.

The folks over at Marginal Revolution recently ran a post about teacher's pay from an economist's point of view:

The key issue isn’t how much they get paid, or whether they get paid less than other people. It’s all about supply and demand. Just ask yourself: what’s the supply? What’s the demand? In a nutshell, teaching is a profession with modest to high demand but low barriers to entry. Eggers & co propose higher teacher pay. And, of course, higher pay will attract better applicants. But that’ll only go so far. Low barriers to entry will always produce downward pressure on wages.

jkottkeJul 14, 2005 at 12:15PM

J.D. Roth wrote: I'd advocate the elimination of advertising.

I agree that what advertising (along with marketing and PR) has become is often useless, annoying, overbearing, and sometimes immoral, but the complete elimination of it seems unreasonable. If I have a product -- say, some homemade root beer that I'm brewing in my garage -- how do I let people know about it if it's illegal to do so? Not trying to be critical here, I'm just curious as to how you'd see this scenario ultimately playing out. (My quick take: it would be much, much harder for businesses to operate at large scales, competition would be stifled, and we'd return to a much more personal business environment, where you'd probably know the person you're buying most of your stuff from. Not sure how that would work when trying to buy a Powerbook from the guy at the hardware store. Hard to see, the future is.)

PatrickJul 14, 2005 at 12:22PM

Revise the tax code, so it is a fair and equal scale based on personal income, with no loopholes. This would be a massive step in redistribution of wealth.

J.D. RothJul 14, 2005 at 12:23PM

If I have a product -- say, some homemade root beer that I'm brewing in my garage -- how do I let people know about it if it's illegal to do so? Not trying to be critical here, I'm just curious as to how you'd see this scenario ultimately playing out.

I know, I know. That's why my idea is ultimately impractical. I'm a small-business owner myself, and without advertising, where would I get customers?

As much as I loathe advertising, it's what advertising is that's a problem, not what it could be or what it once was. Advertising, ideally, should be infromational: "I have this product, here is what it's used for, here is how you can buy it." What it has become instead is an exericise in psychological manipulation of large populations. It's not about information anymore, but about persuasion, convincing people to buy things they do not need.

This is what I perceive as the problem. I don't know how to fix it, though. It's a pipe dream!

davidJul 14, 2005 at 12:26PM

Do away with cars.

Communities culture will improve, which will lead to better education and local government, which in turn will help organization to improve national government.

The benefits to health and environment are built in.

I'm making some pretty broad leaps in my logic, and America is not likely to give up its auto obsession any time soon, but it would be One Significant Thing.

MojoJul 14, 2005 at 12:28PM

Education is a great answer, but I'd honestly focus on our Justice system. I think making prisons a combination of highschool, boot camp, community service, and therapy would go a long way to cut down crime and help our economy from the bottom up. So many people in prisons are mentally ill and the concept of punishment does nothing to help them. Society still needs crime to be punished, but we owe it to help those in need, not to simply throw them away and hope they disappear.

We'll always have white collar crime on one end and horrible incurable monsters on the other, but I have to believe that the vast majority of those in prison can be helped. The more educated you are, the more sane you are, the less you abuse drugs and alcohol the less likely you are to commit a crime.

SparticusJul 14, 2005 at 12:29PM

If you're sending Americans over to other countries to volunteer then I could really do with someone to clean my house. In return I'd take them down the pub to help teach them about British culture.

MojoJul 14, 2005 at 12:31PM

Also-- incourage bicycle programs in cities--bike lanes and bike trails and such.

When you bike instead of drive, you cut down on car emissions, and improve overall health. It's one simple thing that has a SLEW of benefits.

Unfortunately, some cities just aren't bike friendly. I moved from DC to Madison WI and the difference was just night and day.

JohnJul 14, 2005 at 12:41PM

I'm with Catherine:
Free secondary education, ala Ireland.

suzyJul 14, 2005 at 12:42PM

Universally high quality education Pre-K through college. Universal health care, including dental and vision. Every dollar spent on health care and education saves many dollars on intervention, whether health or crime or welfare dollars. But, we'd have to first come to the conclusion that our national success is measured by the health and education of our people, rather than our GNP and military might.

Ravi SinghJul 14, 2005 at 12:49PM

The one thing that would help America most is to restrain it's addiction to militarism. 51 cents of every dollar you pay in taxes goes to the military, while barely any goes to education. Cuba allocates a generous amount of its budget to education. Who's got their priority straight?

We are obsessed with militarism -- we spend more on our military than all other first world nations combined, and an incredible amount of that goes to corporations that profit from the war machine, not to the meager salaries of soldiers and or benefits for veterans.

Then, hold corporations accountable -- make them pay the taxes they haven't paid these past years (since 2000, 70% of corporations have paid no taxes). This would be additional revenue that could go back into education and save Medicare (in much greater current peril than Social Security). Legislate caps on CEO salaries, or legislate salary distribution ranges so CEOs aren't making on average 500 times more than their average worker. Then, welfare will fix itself naturally.

Mandate some vacation and a living wage, and Americans will all do better. More rest = less stress = less healthcare. More money per household = less need to have multiple jobs = more time with the family = family values accomplished.

Whoops -- that's more than one thing! But the one thing would be "Curb Military Spending dramatically". The rest could follow...

Sean MeadeJul 14, 2005 at 12:50PM

wrote a paper freshman year of college advocating flipping the government pyramid, and i still think it's a pretty good idea: move as many decisions as possible to the local level. leave only what absolutely has to be there at the federal level. rearrange the funding and taxation proportionately.

the Constitution was written with about 1M potential voters (IIRC). many local areas are about this size. local decision-making would encourage participation, responsibility, and accountability. might rein the special interests in some.

is it a panacea? no. but i think it's a good candidate...

Ravi SinghJul 14, 2005 at 12:52PM

PS - If you improve education significantly (double or triple the budget allocation, reduce or eliminate the cost of higher education), an intelligent population would demand a more intelligent media. TV would get fixed naturally. Nowadays, advertisers see us all as superficial anti-intellectual consumers, which we by-and-large are.

mikeJul 14, 2005 at 12:56PM

There are some fine ideas here, but the inherent problem lies with the question itself "if you could do one thing to change America for the better..."

The real problem lies in the existence of America, and all other nations. National pride is the biggest problem in the history of the planet. God is the second.

Also, I would like free beer.

SparticusJul 14, 2005 at 12:59PM

Come work cleaning out my house and I'll get you some. I may have to educate you on what beer really is first though.

Volunteers still welcome

Sean AbrahamsJul 14, 2005 at 1:02PM

Reading these comments I've come across a few insightful ones, and some scary ones.

Dan - I agree with you on the paid teacher myth. I would reckon, most good teachers don't teach for the salary, they teach because it's their passion. If we raised salaries of teachers, we would just have more slackers wanting to be teachers for the pay check and just getting by in their duties.

J.D. Roth - I'm right there with you. Although since eliminating advertising unfortunately isn't realistic right now, perhaps getting people to be more aware of its effects could help. The same with cars and television. I assume you've read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and/or Absence of the Sacred?

Benjy - In regards to your thoughts on education, I agree. However, more to the point, the educational system here in the United States is more about "manufacturing consent" than actually getting us to be intelligent, free thinking, individuals.

Kip Ingram - With the exception of #4. I'm not certain technology can solve any of our problems without continuing to create new ones in the process. Although the authors of Cradle to Cradle seem to believe it can.

Farhan Lalji/Alex Foley - See above comments in response to Dan and Benjy.

jkottke - Specifically in response to:
"jkottke says:
Somehow (let someone else figure out the details) require all Americans to visit a new foreign country every year, not as tourists, but as volunteers.

This is a great idea."

The danger in this lies in, by "volunteering" we may hope that it opens the eyes of those doing the volunteering, but I fear that it may lead to further spreading of our unfortunate western culture and beliefs. Yet, perhaps they will cancel each other out and produce a terrifically harmonious utopia.

Josh - You're on to something there :). We need hugs and love brother.

My own thoughts revolve around the basic need for love, respect, and awareness. Not just love for fellow humans, but everything on, and including, this earth and beyond. I feel that all the hatred and greed and frustration and despair are due largely in part to a lack of love in our lives. Does the gang member turn to violence because he is truly loved by his parents and feels loved by his parents? We are not in touch with one another. We are afraid of one another, the power of fear. This is partly by design. Fear is very effective at controlling people (examples, The Village(movie), The Neocons(government)).

Imagine a world where talking to anyone, anywhere, is completely normal. Where you view everyone as a friend, as family. At one time, and in rare situations today, this was/is the case. Imagine a small indigenous indian tribe of 150-200 people who subsist from the land. Everyone knows one another and is family. They respect each other, the land, and the earth. (I may be being a little bit idealist here.)

I highly recommend reading Unconditional Parenting (even if you're not a parent, I'm not) and Absence of the Sacred. Don't just take what they, or anyone, says as truth, think critically about it. It's not that I agree whole heartedly with these books, it's that they do a great job of increasing awareness and get you to think about things that I feel most people do not. Absence of the Sacred does an amazing job of punching a hole in the dam. At least it did for me.

A good follow up to Absence of the Sacred is Cradle to Cradle despite its shortcomings of lacking more real cited evidence and feeling somewhat self promotional. It provides another possible answer besides being a luddite.

KarlJul 14, 2005 at 1:02PM

Farhan wrote: Pay teachers more. By paying teachers more, I believe, more people will go into teaching, reducing class sizes and effectively increasing the amount of time teachers have to spend with individual children.

While as a former English teacher I applaud the sentiment, I'm not sure about the causal relationship that Farhan posits. Increasing teacher pay won't necessarily reduce class size. It may increase the applicant pool, but schools won't necessarily hire more simply because more are applying for jobs. Somebody has to pay for those teachers. In fact, increasing teacher pay might have the opposite effect--reducing the number of teachers and increasing class size to compensate for the higher cost to the district of each individual teacher.

Mr.SnufalufagusJul 14, 2005 at 1:03PM

Make children and people read books (paper copies) more. With the advent of email and e-books, people are going more and more into the digital age. It would be great if we could regress back and feel that smell of paper as we run our fingers through the pages. Reading books will automatically induce people to give up watching TV and making them spend less time in front of the idiot box.
Also, (a close second) another thing would be make sure that everyone in America has a chance to visit one-two countries in every continent (except Antarctica) and learn about the cultures of the people there. Seeing is believing and I think they can come to appreciate other cultures' identity and the ideas put forth by them in today's world.

richardJul 14, 2005 at 1:08PM

Stop telling Americans to fear everything and everybody else.

BusyJul 14, 2005 at 1:11PM

If I could do one thing to improve America and I was guaranteed success I would have every American quit making up easy fixes for big-picture problems that they hear about on the news or in the blogoshere and don't fully understand, and instead go fix one small thing that they know a lot about.

mikeJul 14, 2005 at 1:14PM

I would reckon, most good teachers don't teach for the salary, they teach because it's their passion. If we raised salaries of teachers, we would just have more slackers wanting to be teachers for the pay check and just getting by in their duties.

Yes, living on passion ROCKS. I'm anxious to know who you'll be donating your paycheck to this month.

KarlJul 14, 2005 at 1:15PM

Sorry I posted my last comment before I had a chance to read what Sean Abrahams wrote: "Dan - I agree with you on the paid teacher myth. I would reckon, most good teachers don't teach for the salary, they teach because it's their passion. If we raised salaries of teachers, we would just have more slackers wanting to be teachers for the pay check and just getting by in their duties."

Agreed that most good teachers don't teach for the salary. However, many teachers who quit the profession do so (despite their passion) at least in part because their salary is not enough to support their family. This problem is especially evident in many private schools, where teacher pay is typically less than in public schools. The private religious school in which I taught required teachers to send their own kids to private religious school, but didn't offer any breaks on the tuition. Imagine trying to send 3 or 4 kids to private school at $5,000 a pop when you're only making $30-$40 thousand.

Jason RossittoJul 14, 2005 at 1:15PM

I can't believe no one has said this yet...

Books don't have commercials!

If he's really worried about attention span and concentration he's looking in the wrong place. Even without ads the attention required to watch TV will never surpass that required to read say Infinite Jest.
I know J.K. is a fan of Steven Johnson but I'm not totally convinced (while I'm entertained by Johnsons tendency to critique his critics, I often agree with the critics).

JeroenJul 14, 2005 at 1:17PM

Serve only healthy food in (high) school cafetarias, no more fizzy drinks either. By encouraging healthy food habits early, you'll tackle a large part of the obesity and health problems currently plaguing the US. Not as revolutionary or deep as some of the other ideas here, but something that I think could be done.

mikeJul 14, 2005 at 1:17PM

I apologize for my last comment. I didn't realize who it was, Mr. President.

J.D. RothJul 14, 2005 at 1:18PM

Sean, I have read the Jerry Mander books you cite, as well as many other similar books. I'm not sure whether they've helped me form my ideas, or whether they've merely reinforced them.

What's really solidified my opinion that Advertising is Evil, though, is watching children. I haven't any of my own, but my friends are breeding like rabbits. I love to interact with the kids, because it's something outside my normal experience. It's interesting to note behaviors that they have that I don't expect (kindness, humor, creativity), and scary to see that they exhibit some behaviors I'd hoped they'd dodge (materialism, greed, competitiveness).

What's most shocking is at how early an age these children are sucked into the consumerist mindset. They're aware of advertising as early as two years old, and they become unwitting participants in the system, a system designed to plant life-long psychological programs that encourage them to adopt certain spending habits.

A lot of the other suggestions here involve education. That's a noble thing to change, of course, but I think it doesn't do enough. My wife taught high school chemistry and physics for eight years. She wasn't paid enough, and the politics of the job sucked, but what I saw as more of a problem was that the kids were focused not on learning but on the latest hip toys, the coolest clothes, the best cars, etc. Advertising was all over the school. I say eliminate the marketing pressures and education will improve. (Now obviously this is but a small facet of the education problem. I'm not saying it's the one thing, or even a main thing. But it's part of it.)

I know I sound like some sort of raving lunatic here, some sort of anti-establishment madman. I'm not. I don't think about this subject much, though when I do it makes me angry. Jason's question just happened to spark a recurring rant that had been hidden inside me!

DanteJul 14, 2005 at 1:29PM

At the risk of sounding really evil, I would ban Fundamentalist Christianity. But that's kinda unconstitutional and hypocritical. Well, really unconstitutional.

Practically speaking, the best thing would be to focus more on education on war, and not teaching kids garbage like "intelligent design".

DanteJul 14, 2005 at 1:31PM

(Doh!, that should read 'more on education and not on war'). Kottke, can you fix that and delete this comment?

JeffJul 14, 2005 at 1:37PM

The folks over at Marginal Revolution recently ran a post about teacher's pay from an economist's point of view:

Sorry if I'm getting off topic here but...

I've been thinking about the teacher's pay issue and had a thought. Maybe it's not as much the pay but the chance for advancement. Where is a third grade teacher to go in his/her career? They can become the principal maybe. Maybe they can move up in the union. Or maybe they can move to a better school. It just doesn't seem that they have much room for advancement within their specific school. I'm a programmer and I can see a bunch of advancement opportunities right off the top of my head: manager, a position at the more senior levels of technical planning, start up (might not consider it advancement), etc.

Even if there was a lot of room for mobility in a school system would that be good? Don't you want a stable environment to teach kids in? That's why I don't see school vouchers as being this great fix to education in this country. Any thoughts?

Maybe I should just ask my third grade teacher mom about this one.

melJul 14, 2005 at 1:38PM

Eliminate waste.

How much potential learning time is wasted in a typical high school day changing classes all the time? How many hours do you spend filing taxes every year? How often do you sit through an "educational program" on tv only to find you could have read the script in a quarter of the time it took them to present it?

How often do you return from shopping and find yourself going through the process of unwrapping and unpackaging, ending up with more trash volume than purchase volume? How many cities out there still rely on our good nature to make us recycle? (My city charges for curbside recycling, but picks up as much trash as you put out twice a week for free.)

There are plenty more examples. And I'm far from an advocate of the go-go-go lifestyle - I'm not saying free time is wasted time. But if we embraced the idea that we should stop using valuable time, energy, and resources in ways we mostly agree are bad, could this lead to a cascade effect?

Ed KnittelJul 14, 2005 at 1:39PM

If I could do one thing to change America for the better it would be to get rid of all of the internets. The internets are filled with time-wasting, self-absorbing, unimportant people...

Sure, I'm joking but then again, not really. If but for the same reason that nearly all of the ideas listed here aren't any good. Getting rid of the automobile wouldn't make our lives better - in fact, it would make it worse (traveling to a foreign country would be kind of hard). Travel, commerce, politics - these and others were "invented" to improve the lives of people. Like Jason and J.D. realize, eliminating any of these things we use and do is not the solution - reform is. Advertising isn't bad, it's HOW we do it that's bad. Cars aren't a problem either. They bring goods and medicine and education to areas where there wouldn't possibly be any. We need to move about differently. We need to car pool and invest more in public transportation.

We need to spend more time with other people so that we can learn and understand more about who they are. But we also need to spend more time alone - completely alone - so that we can understand more about ourselves.

So, I change my answer: If I could do one thing to change America for the better it would be to change everything - including myself.

I also like the beer idea, though.

john beelerJul 14, 2005 at 1:49PM

Some of these are great, but some are borderline, "I would make everyone love each other." Ain't gunna happen.

What I think is realistic, although improbable, is to require every person - male or female - to enter national service for 2 years when they turn 18. These people would default into a public works "army" ala FDR's New Deal agencies like the CCC or WPA/PWA. The agency in charge would put these people to work in community service in another state, but each state would receive the amount of workers that they put into the system (Kentucky has, say, 50K 18 year olds in 2005, they get a working force of 50K from other states).

Within this mandatory service, people could volunteer for military service (traditional armed forces) or overseas work (ala peace corps) in lieu of in-country service.

Why would this be good?

Well, it would provide uncountable benefits for communities. Imagine having a workforce that could clean riverfronts, build civic buildings, offer babysitting for single mothers - etc.

But I think it would also sharpen the people going through the program.

Getting away from the place you were born and raised teaches you that people are different, and that diversity is a good thing. It forces you into meeting people that you would not have otherwise met.

I also think that during this time period, mandatory classes could be given on "living," on how to run a budget, how to vote, how to raise children - basically 2 year intensive training to be a citizen.

Logistically, this is a big request - but I think the benefits would far outweigh the difficulty in setting something like this up.

m2Jul 14, 2005 at 1:50PM

Paying teachers more is not a solution. The education system itself needs a massive overhaul. From the day they enter school, children are not being educated -- they're being trained to pass standardized tests that prove little more than how well they can memorize. All this because of the golden goose that we call state and federal funding. No passing tests? No funding.

This is not my "one thing to change America for the better", but it's my one thing to change education for the better: focus on teaching children to THINK ANALYTICALLY and WRITE.

If you can think and write, the world is open to you.

JimJul 14, 2005 at 1:51PM

Lots of "anti" solutions here...

We have anti-consumerism, anti-capitalism, anti-democracy, anti-americanism, and a few nice suggestions on education. Perhaps the people not talking about education should start by making a suggestion that is not designed to be in opposition to an existing cultural pattern that continues to exist because it works.

The funniest suggestion so far was the idea that some random idiot should be able to run for Senate. Why do we need more incompetents in politics? Take a look at what term-limits have done for California to see the problem here.

To turn this suggestion on its head, I would say that a better idea would be to make senatorial campaigns publicly financed, but to stipulate that no one who has not served in the House of Representatives for at least ten years is eligible to run. Return the body to its rightful position as a collection of experienced legislators and get the rich "I wanna buy a position of power" people out.

brentJul 14, 2005 at 1:54PM

I would like to see stands by the side of the road that sell mashed potatoes.

donnieJul 14, 2005 at 1:56PM

replace the handshake with a hug in business and formal settings.

J.D. RothJul 14, 2005 at 2:01PM

...in opposition to an existing cultural pattern that continues to exist because it works.

Not everyone agrees that it works. In fact, I wouldn't have made my suggestion if I thought it was working. Parts of it work. Other parts of the system work in their ideal form. We don't have an ideal form. We don't have democracy. We don't have capitalism. We have twisted bastard mutations of them. If you've read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, then you may remember term corpocracy. We have a corpocracy, or the beginnings of one.

You're right that suggestions for change are more productive than complaints about the system. However, not all of those who see a problem know how to fix it.

I would like to see stands by the side of the road that sell mashed potatoes.

This is a brilliant idea. I love it. What's more, the stands could sell various toppings: turkey gravy, beef gravy, jelly, ketchup'n'mustard, seasoned salts, seasoned peppers, and more! There's a franchise opportunity here. All you need to do is to figure out how to market it! Hire an advertiser!

waylanJul 14, 2005 at 2:09PM

david said:
Do away with cars.

While that may work in the bigger cities, it would ruin the rural area. Sure, people got along without them for centeries, but today most of those in the rural areas do not farm their own land living a self sufficiant life. Rather they work in the city/bigger town and this would not be feasabel without the faster transportation. And with things spread out - public transportation would be way to expensize to be practical. A noble caise? Perhaps - but impractical.

And that is where Mojo's suggestion comes in:
incourage bicycle programs in cities--bike lanes and bike trails and such.

Not a cure all, but a step in the right direction. Besides, as Busy said:
If I could do one thing to improve America and I was guaranteed success I would have every American quit making up easy fixes for big-picture problems that they hear about on the news or in the blogoshere and don't fully understand, and instead go fix one small thing that they know a lot about.

Living in the rurals and working in the city as well as bicycles is the one (ok, 2) thing I know about.

Although, as a side note, I think Mike is on to something here: The real problem lies in the existence of America, and all other nations. National pride is the biggest problem in the history of the planet. But thats not a problem easily adressed by mankind and their inherit need to feel like they 'belong.' In line with Busy's comment (quoted above) I offer no further imput on this matter.

That about summs up my thought for now.

waylanJul 14, 2005 at 2:13PM

Doh', forgot to spell check before posting. How about a mandatory spell checker for all blog software on the comments? Ok, so that would accomplish nothing in the full scheme of things, but its worth a try.

SunnyJul 14, 2005 at 2:21PM

"Stop telling Americans to fear everything and everybody else."

Brilliant. Then we can put our energies toward intelligent solutions.

jackieJul 14, 2005 at 2:22PM

Hmm...it seems like everyone is speaking about teaching based on their mom being a teacher. Well, as a teacher, I can tell you that the pay doesn't look too bad....to someone my age (25). My pay in Texas this year would be around 35K (with master's degree). The major problem is the pay goes nowhere-which is sort of like saying there's no opportunity for advancement-but my pay NEXT year would be a whole 50 DOLLARS MORE. Another hundred the year after that. And so on. A fifty dollar raise is akin to a pay cut.

To add to the conversation...some urban planning would do us all good. If we could recreate the city-center, the meeting place, the public, non-Starbucks communal space of yesteryear in every town or city, collaboration would flourish, causes would find backing, problems would get solved, and people might be happier overall. just a thought.

nickJul 14, 2005 at 2:23PM


Make students write more.
Vocabulary is the most important thing there is. The more words you understand, the greater the breadth of your perception/comprehension.
A respect/desire for reading can only come if the basics arent a struggle, for which practice at writing is needed.
Write MORE!
DO > show > tell

my bible has 26 chapters and infinite interpretations. [dictionary/encyclopedia]

British education gave me vastly more homework than my final 2 years in N.America, from written asignments like eng-lit/history essays to math problems; and from a much earlier age.

[poor writing above notwithstanding :P]

PaulJul 14, 2005 at 2:35PM

"if you could do one thing to change America for the better, what would it be?"

Force all schools to teach proper English rather than dropping letters all over the place. That and make it a constitutional requirement for the President to have an IQ of fifty or above.

CODJul 14, 2005 at 2:36PM

Eliminate all government control of education. There are thousands of ways to learn, and millions of things to learn. The cookie cutter approach to forced education simply does not work. Kids teach themselves to walk and talk by age 4, yet we lock them in a room and beat that love of learning out of them by grade 3. A kids natural state is to explore and learn. More often than not, school just gets in the way.

Once free of the constraints of mandatory government directed education, the next generation will be able to tackle a lot of the other problems mentioned here. However, if we keep screwing up education in the same way, we can't expect different results.

brice cheddarnJul 14, 2005 at 2:44PM

eliminate out dependency upon oil.

why? because:

it would eliminate a lot of political corruption (see bush white house, war in irag, barginning with corrupt goernments, etc etc etc etc)

it would eliminate our dependence on other countries

it would clean up the environment (we would be forced to pursue alternative energy and manufacturing material)

i could go on and on, but im sure youre all smart enough to get what i mean.

other than that...to improve america, i would make every female look like kate from the show lost.

brice cheddarnJul 14, 2005 at 2:45PM

and apparently i can't type..

annetteJul 14, 2005 at 2:47PM

Reform the public school system, especially high schools. In addition to fundamental academic skills like math and English, schools should teach important practical skills like healthy living through diet and exercise, relationship skills, and management of personal finances. I would also eliminate two or more years from the traditional high school curriculum so that at age 16 or so students would start either a job-training program or college.

RimantasJul 14, 2005 at 2:50PM

Ok, this is my bash.org favorite:

The problem with America is stupidity. I'm not saying there should be a capital punishment for stupidity, but why don't we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?

Jeff GatesJul 14, 2005 at 2:53PM

Don't just love your children, tell them you love them every day.

Knowing you're supported unequivocally would help kids grow up to be independent thinkers.

danielJul 14, 2005 at 2:59PM

Promote the idea of "never stop learning". There are far too many people that take the attitude of "I've graduated high school/college, so I am done learning".

Schools (and more importantly, parents) don't do enough to teach kids critical thinking skills.

If I could narrow it down to a kernel, I'd say that the attitude of "just give me the answer, don't bother me with details" really bothers me sometimes. There's too much want for instant gratification, and a real aversion to having to think through something new.

Bill SeitzJul 14, 2005 at 3:20PM

decriminalize marijuana, LSD, ecstasy...


Bill SeitzJul 14, 2005 at 3:22PM

blanket WashingtonDc with webcams streaming to the net

make every govt employees calendar available online for review; allow entries to be tagged by the public (uniquely identify each lobbyist, etc.)



John IJul 14, 2005 at 3:25PM

Single payer health care system.

It's been proven to work in dozens of countries; it's cheaper, more efficient and has better health outcomes. It would also be a huge boon to small business: how many jobs would instantly be created once employers are relieved of having to pay for insanely high health coverage premiums?

Bill SeitzJul 14, 2005 at 3:28PM

Cut the size of most public schools by 50%

Use voucher systems to re-create capacity via diversity of innovation.

(Just imagine if 80% of restaurants were run by the government... blech)


NathanBJul 14, 2005 at 3:29PM

I read a great quote about public school from Paul Graham's book Hackers and Painters just yesterday (full chapter here):

"Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric."

If you want to improve education, make it completely voluntary instead of a day-prison for kids. While we're at it, instead of vouchers and all their church and state baggage, make public school taxes optional. If you don't have kids or want an alternative to public schools, you don't have to pay the state run educational monopoly.

CynthiaJul 14, 2005 at 4:00PM

I don't think it's the kids who need (re)educating. By and large, it's their parents who are the problem.

If I could change one thing, I'd want that adult people start thinking more with their hearts, and less with their heads.

That's the wisdom of children; it would behoove us all to heed it.

George W BushJul 14, 2005 at 4:15PM

We need to abolish corporate tax. It is really hurting our economy, at least that is what my friends tell me.

John FrostJul 14, 2005 at 4:29PM

I'm torn between two choices here. One would be to restructure the tax system so to be levied on production and wealth instead of the current consumption and income taxes we have (see How to save the world ) for deets. The other would be to nullify the ruling that gave corporations the rights of citizens. Both, I think, would have the affect of introducing sound sustainable businesses that also provided living wages for all employees.

barlowJul 14, 2005 at 5:02PM

I know that "George Bush" is in jest above, but it is true that corporate taxes are kind of silly. Think about it - you can really only tax people when you get right down to it. Businesses have costs and provide a service or good. The taxes are just part of the cost of doing business and thus will factor in to the costs of their products (the market is the main driver there, but they still are limited by covering costs), the amount they can pay their workers (or the amount they can put into the business in other ways), etc. So a corporate tax is covered by you and by me in the end. It would be much more honest just to tax people directly rather than to launder government revenue through businesses.

Ravi SinghJul 14, 2005 at 5:02PM

Good points, the most operative word being "sustainable". Corporations are improving our lives and ruining our world simultaneously. Wars are being fought to their benefit for that matter.

DiemerJul 14, 2005 at 5:08PM

It seems that the root of every single comment about changing one thing in america is one thing: the almighty dollar.

So why not start there. If you could change the way that money impacts America, you could cause a ripple effect in all the other aspects of the country that are sour.

I'm not proposing a solution, because frankly, I don't have one.
All I can really say is that if the quality of life and living were somehow disconnected with the value of dollar, our county would be a much better place.

marvin cooperJul 14, 2005 at 5:10PM

Stop developing new bombs and methods of delivering those bombs, and spend the military development budget on the development of non-polluting energy generation technologies. We have enough ways of killing people, how many more do we need? Let's change the world, not just America.

This would be my suggested single change, but I would love to see a government that was influenced by pretty much all of the ideas and sentiments of John Lennon's "Imagine".

Peace and love man.

TravellerJul 14, 2005 at 5:40PM

I'd like to see the entire US Government and Electoral system revamped and reformed. That is the best thing you can do to change America for the better.

As such I would have an expansion to 5 Presidents, or regional governors, who cover and govern specific needs for each general region of the country. I think that would help us govern more effectively and make it harder for crazy laws and abuses of power to take place. I'd like to see the Electoral system abolished in the process and have elections take place by an honest popular vote. Heck, I thought about this concept since before that John Titor guy mentioned it. I thought about it when I was a kid, like maybe 10. and it make a hell of a lot of sense when you get right down to it.

I'd like to see the Judicial placement process adjusted and make sure not a single judge can be elected. The law should never be judged by a vote. Reform appointments to accomplishments as a lawyer within the system can enable appointments to the bar, not "Who your daddy happens to know".

I'd like to see Senators and Representatives chosen by popular vote as well. Electoral state votes are unacceptable and cause the same levels of corruption they currently do at the federal level. I don't believe in term limits, so let them run as many times as the citizens will vote for them. To presume the voters are too stupid to think, is... well... stupid.

Oh and the last issues of reform I'd do re: the federal government, make it so anyone, and I mean anyone can be fired. As in FIRED from their job. Fired for not doing it, Fired for incompetence, Fired for fraud, corruption or giving contracts to their friends. Heck, If you have a relationship to a potential contract winner, take yourself out of the process by law. This includes people all the way up to the President. If you own the tankers that are moving the oil you just captured from Iraq, and the Military secured all this for the US, you and your family must release all financial interest in that company. Sorry, you can't and shouldn't profit from your guiding the nation's woes or successes. You get paid enough to be President, or Vice President...


TravellerJul 14, 2005 at 5:49PM

Wow Barlow, I couldn't disagree with you more.

It is absolutely necessary to tax business and to bleed them every time they make a profit. The actions of any company have an impact on our society, and more often than not, that impact is a drain.

When that drain happens -- well that's a problem.
"People" still have to be paid to fix the problem, materials have to bought to fix the problem, and time (which is someone's money) has to be applied to fix the problem. Regardless of a company's role in the world, regardless of it being a non-profit, a church or a corporation, impact of any kind can equal social, environmental and specific drains and problems on the country. I want the business to take care of the messes they create, which means taxes to fix it. To put that problem at the feet of every American, while admirable -- only makes the task of putting controls on a business' actions to be laughable at best, because the business and business owner (the actual guiding force behind the business) will never, ever be responsible if you dont make them feel financially every action they take. Work hard and work smart should also mean work responsibly as well.

olafJul 14, 2005 at 6:20PM

Try to get real with your morals. Is it the right thing to show explicit violence everywhere (TV, online/ video games) but ban naked flesh from all media? Allow 18 year olds to kill, allow people to be proud of them but the 20 year old drinking a beer with friends peacefully is considered antisocial, a freak. Is the advice of sexual abstinence before marriage the right thing to get our kids prepared for real life? Maybe we should think again and see how we can morally make a move towards the 21st century. One day.

MikeJul 14, 2005 at 6:40PM

Stress critical thinking. Not necessarily universal skepticism, but show people that understanding something is as important as being able to do it. There are so many people I've met who have the childlike (this isn't necessarily pejorative) view that those in charge of their household, job, large corporations, or the country always work on the best possible intentions and it's either not worth the work or not their place to question the status quo.

On the other hand, critical thinking can show you that perhaps the status quo is the best you're going to get in some cases and that alternatives may sound great but may not be realistic to practice.

Understanding both sides of this equation and working toward an informed balance is the only way.

JasonJul 14, 2005 at 6:44PM

Corruption and complacency

susieJul 14, 2005 at 6:47PM

It would be a good idea to burn all the books and give everyone his or her own reality show. Promote and watch TV all the day long. Generalize, stereotype, and stay away from marijuana... Try not to get too much sunlight. Oh and ban music entirely (especially jazz, punk, and the Grateful Dead).

Mike SteinbaughJul 14, 2005 at 6:48PM

Improve funding for music education.

Jammy PacJul 14, 2005 at 7:55PM

Get rid of income tax and introduce consumption tax. Conserve. Invest.

PamJul 14, 2005 at 8:12PM

Require that every single American live abroad for a term once as part of their education. Open our eyes to the unbearable fact that we're not the center of the universe.

Nathan LanierJul 14, 2005 at 8:29PM

Like anything, our lives are enriched by knowledge.

In recent years, the Tour de France has become more interesting and fulfilling because I now understand what the peloton is, and I understand the guts it takes to march up Alpe d'Huez in fifty minutes, and I know how important the feed zone is, and I understand that heart rate and vo2max are essential indicators of a rider's fitness. The more I know, the better it becomes.

I'm kind of adding my own touch to Jason's idea here, but education should be the single most important focus in the coming century.

I recently read a report which stated the rest of the world is graduating scientists and engineers at an ever faster pace than the States. We must address this, but how?

We must find ways to incorporate scientists and engineers from around world into an ever evolving global economic scheme, and we must be relentless in our efforts at home.

Before I go off on a tangent, allow me to be succinct with my point: We must make learning less of a chore and more of an eye opening and engaging experience, and we must demand nothing less from our teachers. It's vital to sustaining our way of life, and even improving upon it.

Philip AshlockJul 14, 2005 at 8:30PM

Have a nationwide education program for public schools which is concerned with global/national current events/politics and how we can live our lives to have a positive effect on these things.

And maybe and provide a recovery program for children addicted to bad tv and MMORPG's

barlowJul 14, 2005 at 9:26PM

Well, Traveller, my point isn't about the morals of taxing businesses, and I certainly agree that the one who makes a mess should clean it up. My point is that it is literally impossible to tax a business. Anytime you levy a tax, *people* (humans) pay it. Even if that tax is levied against a business. Suppose we want to tax Duracell for waste cleanup. So the government levies a tax against them, the company pays it, and then it raises the price of each battery 3 cents and you and I pay the "tax" on each battery. Trying to tax Duracell just means taxing you and me via Duracell.

tysonJul 14, 2005 at 10:49PM

Require that anyone who offers vague ideas about how best to improve education (higher pay, different curriculum) to change careers and become a teacher;) Suck it up and take the cut in pay and prestige. An implicit principle of web innovation: if you know how to do it better, do it. The field of teaching needs more innovative people like you.

Or if thats too personal, similar to some countries requiring a term of miltary service after high school, have the government reguire a term of service in education.

DurfJul 14, 2005 at 10:57PM

"Requiring a term of service in education" is a horrible idea. A military formed by draft is full of people who don't want to be there and won't have their hearts in it; a bunch of teaching assistants who think their positions are a waste of their time will be similarly ineffective.

I'd focus on education, too, specifically on foreign language education. I'd require a few years of study in a foreign tongue at the elementary school level. Get 'em young while their brains are still absorbent and malleable.

Ravi SinghJul 14, 2005 at 11:30PM

Barlow, you're point on taxation ignores one point -- we are the revenue source for the government, business gets all the breaks. Let business be a revenue source for the government; when the prices of their goods go up, we can become more selective in what we choose to purchase. This is the same principle to some degree as abolishing federal and income taxes and going only to a consumption tax. For now, we pay taxes, and we have no say in how they are allocated. Only the ultra-rich get the serious tax breaks.

All this goes back to fixing the dysfunctional relationship between corporations, the government, the military complex and the taxpaying citizens. We are just a revenue source. We should be beneficiaries of the other three, not the pawns of them. Fix that relationship and we can demand that education, health, social security, environment and community-based infrastructures are prioritized and funded.

JakeJul 15, 2005 at 1:02AM

I would raise the price of oil (with taxes) to about $10 a gallon. It would force hydrogen technology. It would force telecommunications. It would force a digital age. A digital age would bring about reform in the copyright system. With a change in copyright, information would become free and everyone could learn a lot more for a lot less, and that is even without school, which doesn't actually TEACH anything other than life lessons.

It would kill the economy for at least a month, but in less than a year we would be at the point of a far stronger economy that is based in knowledge. Just a thought...

paulJul 15, 2005 at 1:09AM

What, you think that by getting kids away from the TV and improving their ability to read, concentrate and actually think, that alone doesn't solve most of the problems listed above (which in my view are just symptoms)?

Being able to read and understand complex ideas and understand when they're being lied to or misled will make kids better, more informed citizens. If this country has any religious basis, I would call the public library its church.

Griping about the election/finance mess or how welfare doesn't work is meaningless: only by breaking the culture of intellectual passivity and being open to ideas and original thinking will any of that be resolved.

I have been around enough school-age kids (mine are 8 and almost-7) and remember my own schooldays well enough to see how much less engaged people are now, how kids can be permitted to slip through the cracks and settle for the mediocrity they see on the screen.

JeroenJul 15, 2005 at 2:16AM

Barlow you say:
My point is that it is literally impossible to tax a business. Anytime you levy a tax, *people* (humans) pay it. Even if that tax is levied against a business. Suppose we want to tax Duracell for waste cleanup. So the government levies a tax against them, the company pays it, and then it raises the price of each battery 3 cents and you and I pay the "tax" on each battery.

First of all as described in the law businesses are taxed, so it most certainly is literally possible. But more importantly, the causal relationship you describe, "companies pay more taxes, therefore consumer pays more for product" is not necessarily true all the time. While at a basic level all value is created by people, this should be no basis to abolish corporate taxes.

Companies are ran by people, but they exist as a distinct entities within the law. The moment people-money enters a business as revenue/investment whatever it becomes company-money. What would happen if we'd stop corporate taxes? Difficult to say, but one of the impulses of a company might be to hoard their profits, put it on a bank account and rely much more on interest as a revenue source rather than actually investing in new products. Somehow I don't think that would be good for the economy.

Angsuman ChakrabortyJul 15, 2005 at 2:39AM

Focus television and news media to seriously undermine religious zealots and their brain-dead preachings like "intelligent evolution". Let the truth come out in the open and zealots and their ideas be ridiculed to the extreme.

Why? It would make USA much more safer, tolerant of cultural differences, prevent corruption of young minds, enable moving forward science on crucial areas like cloning and stem cell research.
And it would definitely increase the overall IQ of the country.

MacDaraJul 15, 2005 at 6:13AM

I'm with Catherine:
Free secondary education, ala Ireland.

I think you mean tertiary education.

And by the way, it's not exactly free. We still have to pay for books, and there's usually some sort of administrative fee that can go into the hundreds.

Of course compared to US universities that's chump-change, but you Yanks do get what you pay for: facilities on US campuses trump most anything we haev to offer.

I'll give just one example - Princeton publishes a daily student newspaper. Daily! Student papers here go out once every fortnight at best.

Still, it's the quality of the education that matters most, and I'm sure most people in the US would be willing to give up the luxuries for the opportunity to get a degree without breaking the bank.

MacDaraJul 15, 2005 at 6:14AM

Forgot to close my italics tag. D'oh.

danbeeJul 15, 2005 at 12:03PM

Abolish greed. No idea how, but i reckon it would solve 95% of the worlds problems.

BenJul 15, 2005 at 12:57PM

A massive national effort to teach philosophy, critical thinking, logic, civics, world events and history, starting at age 5.

q: How do you teach logic to a five year old?

a: Blocks and gravity.

Free philosophy seminars, salons, discussion groups for adults, taught by University professors and other learned types.

This is based on the theory that the more people know, the better their decision-making.

Have you ever had a disussion about an issue i.e., the Iraq war, and the person you're talking to has almost zero knowledge of the facts surrounding the issue? Its seems the less they know, the more ridiculous their position.

Equally good, I think, is the suggestion to send Americans abroad as volunteers. That would have enormous impact.

emilyJul 15, 2005 at 1:48PM

I read PARADE every Sunday (aw yeah) and I came up with this list when I saw the Mailer article:

1. Ban high-fructose corn syrup, which basically causes obesity/diabetes, and subsidize the angry corn farmers for biodiesel development instead.

2. Expand AmeriCorps beyond college age kids to post-retirement adults, with stipends for volunteering in education, health care, community organizations, etc. The stipends could be partially/wholly funded by private business, in exchange for a payroll tax incentive.

3. Flex the Commerce Clause and institute a national sales tax to raise money for socialized health care, etc.

4. David Foster Wallace for President in 2008.

5. TP, ballpoint pens, Post-Its, socks, bottled water, batteries, and Tampax to be distributed at neighborhood drop sites by the federal government.

WirthyJul 15, 2005 at 1:59PM

I'm doing my part to improve America. I'm not having kids. Nobody needs another me running around.

David TallanJul 15, 2005 at 2:50PM

I'm with John Frost's second choice. The first thing I would do is to change the rule that gives corporations all the rights of individual people without the consequent responsibility/accountability. The fact that the law treats corporations as individual people, doesn't make them really so (a perfect example of a "legal fiction". If, for purposes of social policy we want to extend corporations certain rights that individuals possess, we should do so piecemeal, very carefully, and with corresponding responsibilities/accountabilities.

barlowJul 15, 2005 at 4:05PM

Jeroen, yikes man, I will drop the subject, but putting money into *investments* is not the same thing as doing nothing with it; they would be investing in new or existing ventures!! Perhaps a viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life" is in order. Fast forward to the part where people run on the savings and loan. Where is the money? Doing nothing? No, it is building houses. Yes, you can tax a corporation in one sense, but my point was about whether you really can conclude that you are taxing a corporation just because that's who gives the government a check...

And then someone above wants to get rid of greed. If you really think that's a pipe dream, then join the classic liberalism of Adam Smith and the founding fathers who thought that in order to sustain society you're going to have to find a system that works by channeling greed (or self-interest to use a less pejorative word) into activities that benefit everyone.

JohnJul 15, 2005 at 4:31PM

Some of these comments are a stand alone testament to the intolerant fast food mentality in today’s society. At the risk of wasting my time writing and then be flamed for it, or worst yet ignored, I'll just say that things are not as complicated as they appear.

You cannot force education. You cannot buy education. School is not a propagator of information. Education is a process of refinement, and in its private form, is the source of all wealth. Each individual must pave their own road. There is no one size fits all solution.

The fact that when you think of education, the world school comes to mind is one the biggest and most subtle problems of today. You know school, the usually tax payer sponsored, and the always government controlled. Fact is many parents lack education themselves. Many parents are themselves paper chasers, and have spent and continue to spend a great portion of their intellect on cultivating those survival traits that make them dependent on those that are smarter than them, or merely able-bodied enough to "work." Some of you speak of work like it's what man is designed to do, yet you most likely did not design your own line of work, and are a long way from realizing your life’s work.

No person has the right to subordinate another without consent. Making it mandatory to work for whatever cause, good or bad, will breed contempt, and rightfully so. There's a reason why doctors don't kill one patient to save another. Making it mandatory to help others at the expense of the involuntary helper is a form of slavery with a guilt trip attached to it.

The term "political solution" is an oxymoron. The proportion of how many politicians are on YOUR payroll is directly correlated to how many problems already exist, and a precursor to more. Our US government has grown in size. Show me just ONE problem solved, and I'll buy you dinner. Out of all jobs, the political kind should be the least of all guaranteed, but it remains so, even while politicians are not personally accountable for their actions, and often rewarded for "mistakes."

Not ironically, the proportion of enlightened and educated people will be correlated to less and less political jobs that are perceived as "needed."

I noticed the interesting things some of you mentioned, and I can see some of you reaching to understand more. That is a human trait that should be rewarded. Reward yourself with knowledge. Read Human Action, The Creature from Jekyll Island, Atlas Shrugged. Start finding answers to your deepest and most forgotten answers in literature, not your neighbor or representative, and for your sake, turn that damn TV off.

JohnJul 15, 2005 at 4:35PM

Sorry about the typos. It's obvious I've become reliant on word processors.

Some folkJul 15, 2005 at 4:43PM

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.
The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of
his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from

-- Ayn Rand

In a world of unavoidable scarcity, you would not choose to turn over decisions in what you are expert in to those less expert. Does it make any more sense to do that with the vast array of expertise held by different individuals throughout the economy? Not when, as Hayek also observed, "The more men know, the smaller the share of knowledge becomes that any one mind [the planner's mind included] can absorb. The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of civilization depends.

From http://www.mises.org/story/1809

essJul 16, 2005 at 5:28PM

I have been thinking about this for a couple of days, and I got nothing. Prison/Law enforcement need major reform, but not in a way that matches the "one thing" parameter.

If we're openly posting pipe-dreams - then I'd say change America so that every single man, woman, child, and transgendered party-clown can really, truly, freakin’ read. Plus the mashed potatoes thing.

k1rkJul 17, 2005 at 3:30AM

I would put something in the constitution that mandates the seperation of church and state.

Michael McLaughlinJul 17, 2005 at 12:18PM

One thing? Teach parents to teach their children to obey them, to treat others the way they want to be treated, to respect all people, to work hard, to share with others in real need, etc.

A friend spoke in a Mennonite community in northern Manitoba (a true community: of the 1000 people who live there, 500 showed up to hear him speak).

It was a delightful evening. They had good food, good music and a good speaker, though my friend, Dr. Patrick, doesn’t remember what he spoke about.

When it was over, it was too late to fly home, so his host drove Dr. Patrick out to his farm to spend the night. He drove into his garage, which he did not close. He left the keys in the car and they went into the house, which he did not lock. He said, “John, it’s late. Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m fine. But isn’t leaving your keys in the car going a bit far?”

“You never know who might need it!” the man replied. “You see, here in our community, no one steals. And if perchance a "wildhair" of a young man began stealing, the older men in the community would sit him down and say “Why did you do that? We don’t do that here.”

“You see, ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is not as much of a command as it a description of our way of life.”

So, who has the greater freedom? The Mennonites or us with our house alarms and car alarms and satellite tracking devices?

Education is a good thing, but we’ve learned that as we teach medical ethics to medical students, we find that we do not produce ethical doctors - only junior ethicists, and there is a great difference between the two. Some of the most educated people in America in are now in jail as a result of stealing the pensions from tens of thousands of people. Some of the most educated people in the world are corporate attorneys and politicians. So as good as education is, it is not the panacea many think it is.

The Closing of the American Mind: written by Allan Bloom, professor of social thought at the U of Chicago and a noted translator of Plato and Rousseau, an agnostic Jew, a homosexual who died of AIDS in '92, no friend of Christians or theists - - - argues that the social and political crisis of twentieth century America is really an intellectual crisis. From the universities’ lack of purpose to their students’ lack of learning, from the jargon of liberation to the supplanting of reason by “creativity,” Bloom shows how American democracy has unwittingly played host to vulgarized Continental ideas of nihilism and despair, of relativism disguised as tolerance.

“My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origins in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanations in the Bible’s stories and their commentaries on them, and their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heros. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material, not from outside or from an alien perspective, but believing as they did, while simply going deeper and providing guidance. There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.

“I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s and Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk of heaven and earth, the relations of men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as a part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a ‘mind,’ but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, ‘it’ will remain unfurnished.”

And this from an agnostic. True?

natalaJul 18, 2005 at 3:23PM

i would require all US citizens to do at least one, maybe two years of community service (or by choice military service). Kids, esp. poor kids or jaded kids, need an opportunity to get out of their familiarity zone and get connected to their communities. I'd prefer if kids were put into the program and couldn't go to a "local" program but would be shipped across country - city kids to the boonies and vice versa. Sorta like americorps but for everyone.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.