Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obvious Solutions

by Richard Crews
Many of the problems vexing the U.S. and the world have obvious solutions, solutions that are not politically easy, but are clear and simple.

The graying of the population and the consequent disastrous rises in the costs of Medicare and Social Security (and of corresponding programs in other countries) present one such series of problems.

For Social Security, the retirement age should be raised. When the current age limits were set, the life expectancy of U.S. citizens was 20 years younger than it is today. The allowable retirement age should be raised by one year every three years for the next several decades. In addition, Social Security should not be paid to people who don't need it; no one with an income over $100,000 a year or a net worth over a million dollars should be eligible to receive Social Security. These two steps would render Social Security solvent indefinitely.

Similarly, disallowing the wealthy who can afford to pay their own medical expenses from eligibility for Medicare would save the U.S. government tens of billions of dollars a year. But a more important factor that would reduce Medicare costs is eliminating fraud and abuse which currently account for over 10% of Medicare expenses. This could be accomplished cheaply and simply by contracting with American Express, VISA, or MasterCard to police the Medicare program. These private organizations have fraud and abuse threats similar to those of Medicare, but have losses due to these factors of about 0.1 %.

Greed and payment bonanzas in the financial industry could be curtailed by beefing up and enforcing reasonable regulations. This approach plus raising taxes on the wealthy could also solve the wealth and income inequity problems in the U.S., and the consequent advance of poverty and stagnation of the middle class.

Looking beyond finances, the energy dilemma--in simplest terms, pollution versus industrial stagnation--could be solved by worldwide development of Thorium-molten-salt nuclear reactors. This is a safe, clean, sustainable, proven technology whose main limitation is the popular prejudice against anything called "nuclear power" because of Uranium fission disasters like Chernoble and Fukushima.

And with cheap, abundant power, the world's water shortages become solvable through desalination--removing the salt from ocean water. Then with modern agricultural technology and frugal, fair distribution, the world's food crisis would be manageable as well.

The solutions to these--and certain other--U.S. and world problems are clear and simple. Their implementation is only impeded by short-sighted politics.

But there is one series of problems for which there is no evident solution: the problems raised by the dramatic advances in technology. These are not just the plague-prone globalized community (plague-prone because new, deadly viruses and bacteria can be transported around the world in a few hours--far out-pacing medical constraints) and the hyperinflation of tech-driven healthcare costs. More significantly, there is a technological "singularity" only a few years in the future; there is a mist into which no prognosticators car peer. New technologies proliferate and spread so rapidly and cause such dramatic changes in our activities, lifestyles, and environments, that it is impossible to know what disasters (as well as delights) lie just ahead.

And you can't solve problems you can't see coming--especially when they are coming at a million miles an hour.