A business leader and esteemed economic thinker outlines simple solutions to America’s five most pressing public policy issues, from healthcare to education to inequality
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A business leader and esteemed economic thinker outlines simple solutions to America’s five most pressing public policy issues, from healthcare to education to inequality.
America today confronts a host of urgent problems, many of them seemingly intractable, but some we are entirely capable of solving. In Five Easy Theses, James M. Stone presents specific, common-sense solutions to a handful of our most pressing challenges, showing how simple it would be to shore up Social Security, rein in an out-of-control financial sector, reduce inequality, and make healthcare and education better and more affordable. The means are right in front of us, Stone explains, in various policy options that — if implemented — could preserve or enhance government revenue while also channeling the national economy toward the greater good.
Accessible and thought provoking, Five Easy Theses reveals that a more democratic, prosperous America is well within our reach.
Introduction and Foundations
Let me explain the title of this book. Americans, on the whole, are deeply dissatisfied with the inability of our government to solve a host of obviously consequential problems. Some are genuinely hard to solve because they don’t have solutions that equitably resolve nasty tradeoffs between winners and losers. But the paralysis today is worse than that. Our system can’t even seem to deal with eminently solvable problems.
This book is about five of those. It presents straightforward answers to several of today’s most important public policy issues. Or, more precisely, it asserts that straightforward logical answers to some issues are staring us in the face, yet there is no political path to their resolution. I hope you will declare this an unacceptable state of affairs. Worse still, the key issues are too seldom part of what passes for political debate these days. Politicians in both parties steer away from exactly the subjects they ought to be addressing in favor of sound bites, “gotchas,” and mini-matters. My book title, I admit, is slightly facetious because the logic of the five issues is not entirely beyond debate and the politics may appear hopeless. But I wanted to make the point that these are issues politicians should stop running from. An alternative title for the book was Too Big to Touch. Please don’t mistake the conversational tone or intentional lack of bombast in what follows for a belief that the recommendations offered here are of small consequence or could be readily enacted. Together, they are transformative and thus would be heartily resisted.
Americans disagree about many things, and so it shall always be, but I would wager at pretty good odds that most of you share the concerns embodied in these five questions:
Are you confident that Social Security and Medicare will be solvent enough to meet their promises when you and your children need them?
Do you want to live in a society in which a tiny fraction of the public and a few corporations hold a greater share of the wealth and influence than has ever been the case in America before? Can a society so tilted be as productive and stable, not to mention pleasant, as the America you grew up in?
Must your health care cost almost twice as much as it costs your counterparts in every other advanced nation, while our health system delivers objectively worse results than most of the others?
Why can’t the schools of this affluent and admired nation train students not headed to college for realistic careers and stop busting the budgets and burdening the futures of so many who do go on to university?
Did we learn anything from the Crash of 2008? How have we allowed our financial sector to accumulate even greater derivatives positions than prior to the crash, to concentrate its assets in even fewer institutions than before, and to take home a massive and unprecedented share of the economy’s profits?
I am a Democrat, but this is not a partisan book. Americans of every political stripe?? — ??the Right, the Left, the Center, the not-sures, and even the don’t-cares? — ?share these concerns. Many talk about our nation as adrift, with hazardous rapids not necessarily around the next bend but maybe the one right after that, and surely somewhere ahead. I am not so pessimistic, but it is true that you are not getting the deal you had counted on, and that your children have even slimmer prospects of getting it in the future. We are still the most affluent and powerful nation the world has yet produced, and at little risk of losing that status anytime soon. But most Americans today believe that we are leaving our rising generation a society in worse shape than the one we inherited. If you believe that, you are probably right .?.?. but it doesn’t have to be.
As the problems grow larger, alas, it seems that our politics become smaller. It is standard fare in civics classes to describe democracy’s requirement that officeholders find a balance between representing and leading, between following the wishes of their constituents and acting on their convictions. Similarly, there is a recurrent debate in campaigns for office between those who want to follow the polls at some critical moment and those who want the candidate to demonstrate courage and philosophical consistency. These tensions are inevitable, but today’s balance is way out of whack. Few current politicians dare to go beyond nearsighted polls, and those who do are often dismissed in the media as hopelessly outside the mainstream.
Scanning this forbidding landscape, many of you may have concluded that issues like those I have listed cannot be solved in ways that will provide any genuine benefits to you and your families. Perhaps you feel that a better life for your children has rather unexpectedly moved out of reach. America is in decline, some can be heard to complain; the century of America is in the past. To this, I say nonsense. I could hardly disagree more. This is, in fact, exactly the attitude I wish to challenge. That America has passed its peak is far from an inevitability. Ours is still the country that most favors, at least in the private and academic sectors, intellectual challenge to the established ways of doing things. And from this spring innovation and creativity no other society can match. The advantage, moreover, is proving robust. I will try to persuade you that the public sector can tap into this energy and become a worthier partner for the rest of the country? — ?if only it would adopt some specific, commonsense policies. Only the will to act is missing; the course is relatively clear.
The course corrections I advocate are largely off the table in contemporary politics. There are three ingredients of serious political progress, and all three are currently missing. The first is clarity of vision? — ?pragmatic thinking about courses of action that will really work. I hope to provide a bit of that here. The second ingredient I cannot provide. This ingredient is political leadership, at an opportune moment for change, imbued with the unusual guts, charisma, and communications talent to champion a bold change, even if it risks defeat and the polls suggest the public isn’t ready to follow yet. Politics is a tightrope for an elected official. You fall off to one side if you don’t get elected. You fall off as well, though, if you waste your opportunity to lead. An election to office is a chance to demonstrate leadership, in both philosophy and action, to advance the values you believe in. Public servants without idealism, politicians who don’t care about improving their slice of the world or promoting values to which they are committed, are little more than career freeloaders.
This is not, on the other hand, to suggest that all those who fail to bring about transformative change are parasites. Some of the best in public life will try and fall short. It takes more than intellect, vision, and personal courage, however admirable, to produce great leadership success. Timing counts, too. In the history of any nation, there will be moments that particularly call for tilting toward compromise and moments that call for leaning toward courage. This country has been remarkably lucky to have great statesmen who have chosen a bold leadership path and rallied public opinion in times of obvious crisis. That’s why we remember them as great. Ours are times of less appare...
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A BLOOMBERG BEST BOOK OF 2016
“Five Easy Theses sets out key issues of public policy easy to identify in concept but long unresolved in practice. Stone proposes sensible approaches to breaking the long-standing political deadlock. The specific measures to deal with budgetary balance, income inequality, public education, healthcare, and financial reform should provide a guide for constructive debate as we choose our next president.”
—Paul A. Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve (1979 to 1987) under Presidents Carter and Reagan and currently chairman of the Volcker Alliance
“Jim Stone has seen health care from all sides and cuts through the complexities to what really matters beautifully.”
—Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal
“This is an excellent book, authoritative, informative, very well written, and of course directed to the big issues people care about.”—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, Twice Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction
“An important book for readers of any political stripe who want to get beyond the current domestic policy impasse. You may not agree with everything Stone advocates, but every argument he makes is worthy of serious attention.”—Tom Daschle, Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader (Democrat, S. Dakota)
“Smart, thoughtful, clearly very informed—yet absolutely accessible. It can be difficult to strike this balance, but Stone has caught it exactly.”—Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor, Harvard Business School
“Jim Stone's book shows that we can indeed solve many of the nation's seemingly intractable problems if we follow clear headed, non-partisan thinking. If you care about our future, you should read this book.”—David T. Ellwood, Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy and Former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
“Five Easy Theses provides clear-eyed and non-technical explanations of five pressing economic issues: health-care costs, income inequality, government debt, college affordability, and financial-sector reform. These are some of the most complex policy challenges we face, all with multiple possible solutions. Even readers who don’t agree with Stone’s proposed policy responses will appreciate his straightforward and thought-provoking presentation of the issues.”—Christina Paxon, President of Brown University, for Bloomberg, "Best Books of 2016"
“Stone has written a powerful, thought-provoking book. Whatever your political party or philosophy, you need to take all five of his theses seriously.”—Clayton Yeutter, former Chairman, Republican National Committee, and former United States Secretary of Agriculture
“An extraordinarily impressive and important book. Stone is smart, balanced, and sensible, three traits that are in desperately short supply in our discourse about the future of the country. His analysis is penetrating, logical and powerful, without ideological spin. Every policy idea he presents follows from that logic. You don't have to agree with all of his proposals to realize his book’s value to politicians, policymakers, and citizens everywhere.” —Norman Ornstein, author, political scientist, and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
“This book is a recipe for restoring America’s greatness. Stone offers thoroughly persuasive solutions to five economic and social problems we often consider insoluble. The more closely we follow his prescriptions, the brighter our national future will be.”—Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers
“James Stone’s Five Easy Theses is masterfully written, straightforward, and free of jargon. The marvelous chapter on income and wealth distribution presents a compelling essay on inequality in the United States. Stone speaks with particular and rare authority on these issues. People should listen to what he has to say.”— Janet Gornick, Director, Luxembourg Income Study, and Professor of Political Science and Sociology, Graduate Center, City University of New York
“Well-crafted and highly engaging, James Stone’s Five Easy Theses takes on five of the nation’s biggest problems and offers solutions that are as simple and accessible as they are illuminating. Particularly at a time of intense partisan polarization, Five Easy Theses is refreshingly honest—a model of straight talk. Readers may not agree with everything Stone proposes, but they’ll marvel at his command of the issues and finish the book with a new sense of possibility and much to cheer about.”—David A. Moss, John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
“A pithy, well-documented distillation of pressing public policy issues including the causes of America’s annual trillion dollar overspend on healthcare—and what, in practical terms, we could do as a nation to substantially lower costs, and perhaps even improve outcomes. In vivid prose that combines convincing evidence and compelling stories, Stone persuasively argues that a universal, single-payer system should replace our highly inflationary patchwork of private insurance and government programs.”—Jonathan D. Quick, MD, MPH, Management Sciences for Health, Global Health Council, and Harvard Medical School
“Five Easy Theses contains cogent, insightful, well-articulated policy prescriptions for a divided nation grappling with critical economic issues. Even if you don’t agree with the policies Stone proposes, the book contains important ideas we all need to think hard about.”—Michael S. Helfer, Former Vice Chairman, Citigroup, Inc.
"In Five Easy Theses, Stone tackles the tough issues: our educational divide, inequality, and eroding retirement security. Not everyone will agree with him on the details of every proposal. But his bold ideas for reform bring a combination of compassion and insight to the national debate."—Alicia H. Munnell, Peter F. Drucker Professor of Management Sciences, Carroll School of Management; Director, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College; and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
“Stone’s experience as a successful insurance entrepreneur, an economist, and a former financial regulator, lends substantial credibility to his view that highly leveraged financial derivatives and other ‘innovative’ financial instruments carry risks to the financial system that far outweigh their public good.”
—Ricki R. Tigert, former Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
“This book is eminently readable, accessible, and sensible. It should be required reading for every member of Congress. Jim Stone understands the issues, the underlying tradeoffs, and the very real choices that must be made if we as a nation are to address our greatest ec...
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