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The Party That Campaigns on This Policy Will Sweep the '14 Elections

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Consider, if you will, the power (both political and economic) of pegging congressional salaries to the unemployment rate.

Despite economic recovery from the Bush Recession, joblessness remains high. Boomers who were near retirement have lost jobs that were supposed to provide them a little nest-egg. Millennials have not been able to gain entry-level jobs in their 20s to build their CVs for a career ladder, to purchase homes and to start families.

It is no mystery what needs to be done to get the unemployment rate down to pre-Bush Recession levels. Right-wing Republicans will not let it happen, in part because they are worried that success will show the bankruptcy of their ideas, so that even rather tepid measures such as the president's American Jobs Act go nowhere.

Although Democrats' proposals would indeed create jobs (e.g., the stimulus saved or created 3 million), and Republicons' policies would destroy them, both parties utter the word "jobs" with similar frequency so that with nothing happening, the public does not give the Democrats' much more credibility as in, "I-had-better-register-and-get-out-and-vote-for-these-people-so-that-they-will-actually-do-something-about-jobs."

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers describes the extraordinary dedication required, even by the most talented, to be the best in their fields. Others may think they want to be the best golfer on the tour, or the cleverest computer programmer, but are they really committed to it? Will they really, as the 13-year-old Bill Gates did, sneak out of his parents' home to use the University of Washington's computers to write software between 2-5 a.m., and then silently suffer as his parents struggle to get him to school on time the next day.

The key word is "really." Many people say, and believe when they say, that they want to achieve a certain end, but do they "really" want to do it badly enough to do whatever is necessary to get there? How do we know?

One way to judge our own commitments, and those of others, is to watch what they do, not just what they say.

Moreover, leadership requires that others believe one's commitment is deep and sincere. That credibility is most effectively conveyed by sharing sacrifice.

So, if a party really wants to win the '14 elections so that they can get the unemployment rates down to ~4 percent , they will prove it to voters by agreeing upfront to a shared sacrifice that has the additional benefit of creating the "force-field" that pushes the parties to pass intelligent policies so as not to hurt themselves.

How does one do that? Simple. Peg congressional salaries to the unemployment rate. Today, we taxpayers provide salaries and benefits to these people regardless of their performance.

Here is how it would work: right now, members of Congress have awarded themselves salaries of ~$175,000 annually. Under the "peg-salaries-to-unemployment-rate" structure, they would receive lower salaries for high rates of unemployment and higher salaries for low rates of unemployment.

This, for example, would be a Congressional salary table linked to the unemployment rate:

Unemployment Rate.....................................................Congressional Salary

>8%....................................................................................$85,000
7-8%...................................................................................$110,000
6-7%...................................................................................$150,000
5-6%...................................................................................$225,000
4-5%...................................................................................$300,000
3-4%...................................................................................$400,000

Yes, under this salary scale, members would get paid a lot more if the unemployment rate were considerably lower. But, they also get much less when they allow, as they have, people to be without jobs.

How would this be administered? Also, very simple. Every month the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the employment data including the unemployment rate. Members would be paid the monthly portion of the salary indicated in the table based upon the unemployment rate for that month.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics often adjusts the prior month when they get more data. The adjustment, up or down, can be reflected in next month's salary.

Should the president and vice-president also have their salaries adjusted depending on the unemployment rate? Sure, why not? I have not included it in the table, but it would be simple to do the same percentage adjustment to their salaries as is reflected in the table for members of Congress.

Consider what this does politically for the party that adopts it. It shows leadership, and creates a level of credibility that only shared pain can achieve. Democrats control the Senate, and can bring the measure to a vote -- and all Senators will have to declare themselves. Same for Republicans in the House. In either body, failure to allow votes on the proposal tells the country just exactly what Congress thinks of them.

And, they can bring these votes now, so that every voter will know how his or her member stood on the matter.

The proposal also provides a force-field to enact policies that real economists, using real math, consider good policy. Will there be disagreement? Certainly. But, as those disagreements are compromised, or log-rolled, and the employment picture responds well or poorly, there will be great personal incentive to 'fix' whatever they did wrong.

Objection #1: Why pay them more just for doing what they are supposed to do? Answer: Good question. Businesses do this all the time, pegging pay to performance, so it is a well-worn tool of management. And, no one would disagree that these people need to be managed by their bosses, you and me. As a taxpayer, I would rather pay them these "bonuses" if they actually do well by my fellow citizens, then pay them today's rate for doing nothing.

Objection #2: Won't Congress just spend like bandits to create jobs where none are needed, driving us into debt? Answers: There is $2.2T of infrastructure repair we have allowed to languish over the last 30 years, so there is plenty of needed work to be done. New energy and medical technologies need to be created. The importance of debt has been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, if they believe in the dangers of debt, they will legislate accordingly. Members of Congress expect to be re-elected. Hence, whatever short-term gain there might be from ill-considered policies will be offset in the future by lower salaries if these policies do not have some longer-term perspectives.

Objection #3: Since Congressional pay may not be increased or decreased during any term, any such law now could apply only to the Congress that gets seated on January 3, 2015. Hence, this will have no benefit now. Answer: Members of Congress expect to be re-elected. The unemployment rate will not be reduced drastically in any short-run. Hence, they will all anticipate the higher salaries, and try to avoid the lower salaries, by getting the unemployment rates down now so that their salaries will be that much higher immediately upon taking office in the next term. And, if they do not respond now, at least they will start in 2015.

Objection #4: Unemployment rates are not completely within the control of politicians. Hence, why should they get credit (for good news) or docked (for bad news) for elements out of their control? Answer: So what? This is life. When the price of oil skyrockets due to a war in the Middle East, the big oil companies and executives take home even more money, despite their having nothing to do with it. Moreover, it is Congress's job to anticipate and react to changes, and thus to mitigate the damage to American workers. Perhaps some of them would start paying attention to what is happening to our people.

Objection #5: This does not deal with adequate pay for workers to rebuild the middle class. Answer: One proposal cannot solve every problem. One could, if one wished, add a third column for bonuses for the percentage of households that have incomes above a set amount, or for reduction in the poverty rates, and so forth. For now, keeping it simple provides a clear incentive.

Objection #6: Members of Congress are very wealthy. They will not care if their pay is reduced and will not come together just to restore or improve their pay. Answer: True enough, but one suspects there are sufficient numbers who may be wealthy, but not sufficiently wealthy, to serve without pay or with, what for them and their families, is a low pay check. Will they want to sell their real-estate or stock holdings to pay for their living expenses, sending their children to private schools, and so forth?

Objection #7: These financial incentives cannot overcome the polarization the right-wing has created. Answer: If so, there is nothing lost. At least we do not allow them their misbegotten salaries. Financial incentives of this magnitude have powerful effects on peoples' behaviors. As the saying goes, "nothing like a good beheading to focus the mind". Congress takes care of itself very well -- or, haven't you noticed?

Objection #8: Does one really think Congress is so stupid that they would adopt this and subject themselves to accountability? Answer: Well, Congress is stupid, but not when it comes to its own self-interest. Then, they are very smart. Part of being smart might be bringing (or maintaining) their party's grip on power. Congress is not very much fun when you don't control committee assignments, or debates, or the agenda.

The key is to get a group of members of Congress who propose this and shame their fellows into adopting it. Progressive caucus, Congressional Black caucus, Latino caucus, Tea Party caucus... are any of you listening??

Do you believe that your member of Congress really (there is that key word again) cares about reducing unemployment? This is the test.

And, imagine the joy of campaigning against a member, or a party, who refuses shared sacrifice and accountability.

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