When people talk about how to make American better these days (meaning the USA), it’s always about the big things–racism, sexism, global warming, and so on. And these things are important, but also hard and complex and frankly disheartening. We sometimes forget that there are many other problems we could solve with relatively simple solutions if we gave them some attention. Things we could do quickly, in other words, if we can just find the will to do so.
That’s the focus of this and possibly future quick-and-dirty posts: What can we do now, today, to make things a little bit better for someone, somewhere, even if it’s not us? These things are not prioritized or ranked (numbering is just a way to order the list), and these ideas are just here for discussion and consideration. What do you think we should tackle first?
- Ideas to Make America Better
- 1. Change to the Metric System (Easy)
- 2. Outlaw Political Redistricting (Medium)
- 3. Pay Prisoners Prevailing Minimum Wage (Medium?)
- 4. Make Washington DC a State or Equivalent (Hard)
- 5. Grant US Territories Statehood or Independence (Hard)
- 6. Remove All Native Mascots and Team Names (Easy)
- 7. Reform Juries to be More Representative (Medium)
- 8. End the War on Drugs (Medium)
- 9. Default to Roundabouts vs. Stoplights (Easy)
- 10. Upgrade Affirmative Action (Medium?)
- Other Ways to Make America Better
Ideas to Make America Better
1. Change to the Metric System (Easy)
What most Americans don’t seem to know is that the US Imperial system is already based on the metric system (via standards set in by ISO in Europe). Most large US companies maintain machinery and systems based on metrics to ensure international compatibility. Food packaging includes both metric and imperial units. We’re already 90% of the way there. So what’s holding us back?
And the answer is, of course, nothing but political will. Neither party has much to gain by pushing the change, no major special interest is driving adoption, so the US is stuck with Liberia and Myanmar as the only countries on Earth not officially using the metric system. And both of the other countries are in the process of changing. We are at risk of “American exceptionalism” becoming American stupidity and irrelevance. This forces US businesses, scientists and pretty one everyone else to maintain two separate measurement systems and convert between them–sometimes causing expensive accidents.
How? Maybe states can start pushing adoption. I’m not sure of federal legal constraints, but there is nothing stopping schools in, say, California from teaching the metric system to ALL students starting immediately, even if it’s just as another option. Start making kilometers the default on road signs. Change all food serving default sizes to 100g like in Europe. Just. Do. Something.
2. Outlaw Political Redistricting (Medium)
Drawing strange political districts to benefit one party is obviously not ideal for democracy, and neither major party theoretically benefits more than the other (although the GOP seems to benefit more in practice). And it would ensure that states elect representatives that are actually representative of the population as a whole.
The key is to remove political parties from the process. Redistricting based on the decennial census should be focused on creating simple, competitive districts that represent the people of the state, regardless of political party. There are even mathematical systems to help measure how representative a district is:
And there are entire organizations dedicated to these improvements, including represent.us (see video below). We have the tools and knowledge to make these changes now. What’s stopping us? And the answer is, as always, entrenched political parties the special interests that back them.
And most Americans already support reforms to redistricting to eliminate or reduce political party control.
How? Just freaking demand reform from our elected officials. Call or write your representative. File lawsuits over biased redistricting. Given how polarized the US is, and the increasing speed at which we’re abandoning mainstream political parties, this should be a non-partisan issue we can actually address.
3. Pay Prisoners Prevailing Minimum Wage (Medium?)
One of the greatest incentives for the private sector to encourage and drive mass incarceration is, the more prisoners they have (a) the more the government pays them and (b) the more cheap labor they have access to. This is in a very real sense a direct legacy of slavery, and it creates an incentive to imprison people. And yes, there’s a Jon Oliver video on this:
Among the MANY reforms needed is to require that prisoners are paid the prevailing minimum wage in their state of incarceration, require that they get to keep their wages, and ensure that the prisons themselves don’t get a single dime of this money. If we want prisoners to fight fires, pay them. If we want prisoners to pick up trash, pay them. Prison is about protecting us from violence and punishing crime, not creating a cheap labor force for corrupt politicians and local factories.
How? Make it a law for all state and federal prisons. Enforce it. That’s it.
4. Make Washington DC a State or Equivalent (Hard)
This one, and the ones that follow on US Territories, probably breaks the rule of being “easy to do” because while it’s theoretically easy, there is no way conservatives in the US will let either happen without a bloody fight. And I can’t blame them — it’s not like DC is going to swing for the GOP anytime soon (see second video, below). And pretending that Democrats are passionate about this for purely humanist reasons is farcical.
But none of that changes the fact that US citizens and legal residents of DC are currently and unfairly deprived of representation in Congress. We allegedly fought a war of independence over taxation without representation, so why is it okay for the people of DC?
In this case, there’s a fight to be had, but it’s a fight we need. The people of DC do not deserve to be treated like second rate citizens.
How? No constitutional amendment is required–this falls under the clear jurisdiction of Congress–and DC must be a state for its people to have the same rights as in other states (are there other creative options?). So GOP opposition just has to be overcome. I don’t know. This is genuinely hard. But we still have to do it.
5. Grant US Territories Statehood or Independence (Hard)
America’s colonial past is an anchor on our democracy, and a travesty for US citizens trapped in a limbo where they’re American but not-quite-American-enough to be treated like full citizens. All American territories should immediately be granted independence or statehood, at their discretion.
Every person in all of these territories is currently treated like a second-rate citizen of the US, taxed without representation, abused for land or corporate manipulation, and only partially protected by the US constitution (in practice). This is no way to treat human beings, let alone Americans. These territories should be freed or made states as soon as possible.
How? Great question, and there is no simply answer for the same reason that making DC a state is hard; adding new states affects the political balance in the US House and Senate, and the makes this a partisan issue. And I’d argue that, since most of the impacted people are not English-speaking whites, it’s also an issue for US racists who don’t want brown people to have more power in the country. I’m open to creative solutions? Add more conservative states at the same time by splitting existing states? Something else? How do we solve this problem?
6. Remove All Native Mascots and Team Names (Easy)
This one should be relatively simple, and there’s already vast momentum behind it from the US indigenous population. Native American cultures are not caricatures to be used for mock battle calls or team motivation. The Washington Redskins is a racist name just as the Washington Negroes would be. It’s time to change them, and all it takes is a decision to do so. The costs are not that great. The benefits include showing respect and offering dignity to an oppressed people, so…why not?
Of course there are conservative groups and interests like Prager U that will argue differently, but there is always opposition to change. The response in this case is, so what? This is not a trillion-dollar tax issue. This is not a guns-rights issue. This is just about respecting a people we’ve treated like crap for hundreds of years. That’s it. Everything else is noise and distraction. And we’re already doing it.
7. Reform Juries to be More Representative (Medium)
The concept here is incredibly simple. Rather than worrying about the process of jury selection or exclusion, simply make it a federal law that the result of jury selection must be a jury that includes actual peers, or at least one, and is minimally diverse:
- If the defendant or victim is Black, there must be at least one Black and one non-Black juror, if Asian, then at least one Asian and one non-Asian, etc. In other words, one person must be of the same or similar race, and one person must not be of that race or ethnicity.
- If the defendant or victim is openly LGBTQ+, then the jury must include at least one person who is also LGBTQ+ and one who is not.
- If the defendant or victim is disabled, then there must be someone else on the jury with a similar disability, or at least another person with adjacent experience.
- And there must always be at least man and one woman.
This won’t guarantee a truly representative jury in all cases, but at least it establishes a minimum or representation in all cases.
How? Just make it a law. Or a constitutional amendment. Don’t care. Never again in the United States should anyone face a jury that does not include a simple person that looks like them or understands their experience. And this doesn’t even really have to change the current process. Lawyers can still reject or dismiss jurors they find biased or objectionable, they just have to keep the process going until minimal representation is reached.
8. End the War on Drugs (Medium)
Two of the great travesties of modern America are the vast waste of lives and resources on idiot drug wars, largely to the benefit of US pharmaceutical companies and foreign drug lords, and mass incarceration of young men for petty drug crimes. Both of these issues can be substantially addressed by legalizing pretty much everything and then taxing it.
Legalization gets rid of idiotic legal penalties for personal decisions, raises revenues for treatment, decreases the size of government, and removes one major sources of systems racism from government structure. We’re already doing it with marijuana, and even hallucinogenic mushrooms. Just do it for freaking everything and focus on treatment.
How? Just freakin’ do it. We live in this weird fear that if a drug is legalized, crazy hippy mobs are going to run rampant in our cities. This is nonsense. Drug treatment and related issues can be easily funded by taxation on those drugs, with none of the costs of an utterly failed and immoral drug war.
9. Default to Roundabouts vs. Stoplights (Easy)
Hey, not everything has to be about vast and horrible issues. Sometimes you just want to make a little change that makes life better for everyone, and roundabouts are that kind of change. They’re safer than stoplight-regulated intersections, for cars, bikes and pedestrians. They cost less. And they leave space for a cute little garden or statue in the middle.
Roundabouts are already spreading around the country after decades of resistance, so let’s just change the logic: from now on, roundabouts should be the default while stoplight-controlled intersections are the exception you have to justify.
Roundabouts are not a cure-all, of course (see video below), but they are far, far better than traffic-light and stop sign intersections.
How? Anytime the city is building, planning, converting, expanding, just make sure roundabouts are the default and stoplights (or other options) come next, or at least that engineering and planning guidelines include them. This is largely a public education issue. So, tell people roundabouts are awesome. Because they are.
10. Upgrade Affirmative Action (Medium?)
Everyone has a strong opinion on affirmative action, pro or con, racist or not, and it results in more heat and friction than measurable progress. Do middle-class white women benefit more than BIPOC communities? Is it reserve racism? Does it stigmatize minorities on colleges and workplaces? It’s a mess.
There is plenty of controversy around, including backlash against “model Asian” college admissions, and what’s increasingly obvious is that basing admissions on socioeconomic factors rather than race has substantial benefits without all of the controversy:
What I’m suggesting is something a bit more radical: focus affirmative action explicitly on generations of historical poverty. In other words, admissions should favor families and people stuck in grinding poverty for the past, say, ten generations over those that have already made the leap to the middle or upper classes, regardless of race, gender or other factors. Add to this the stipulation the slavery and living on native reservations is by default a state of poverty, and you attain all the major goals of affirmation action without accidentally helping those who are doing just fine without it. I get there are some details to be worked out here, but we can all agree that poverty is bad and getting out of it is hard. So, let’s make it a little easier.
How? Oh, you know, minor political changes and whatnot. But seriously, changing race-based affirmative action to class-based affirmative action preferences is probably the only way to save it in our increasingly divisive political environment.
Other Ways to Make America Better
I’m sure I’ll have more ideas in the future, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. What works or doesn’t? What’s practical or not? And what do you think we can do to improve America? I mean, the United States.