Reporter's Notebook

Your Answers, Questioned
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Our special series “A&Q” inverts the classic Q&A, exploring the complexity of some of the most frequently posed solutions to policy problems. We invited readers to weigh in with their own As and our reporters responded with Qs.

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Would Term Limits Fix Political Polarization?

In response to the A&Q I wrote on political polarization, this reader wondered why I didn’t mention congressional term limits as a possible solution:


One potential solution you failed to explore is term limits on members of Congress. We place term limits on the president to avoid too much power accruing to one individual. However, when you have members of Congress sitting in the same seats term after term, in some cases for decades, that allows those individuals and their backers to retain disproportionate influence in the political process as well.

When you couple this issue with the fact that members of the House of Representatives are running for re-election every two years, you have large portions of Congress who are fund-raising more than they're governing.

My suggestion would be two-fold. First, limit members of both chambers of Congress to two terms. Second, extend the terms of members of the House of Representatives to three or four years.


Are term limits feasible, and would they help reduce political polarization?

A number of readers have responded to the A&Q I wrote on the gender wage gap, including the following reader, who says the disparity is largely due to different career choices:


The often-quoted salary difference between men and women is based on the median numbers provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The word “median” means midpoint; 50 percent of people are above and 50 percent are below. It does not mean “average.” And there is a lot more to understanding salaries in the U.S. than meets the eye.

Pointing out that men and women are paid different salaries tells us that men and women are doing different jobs within the same job classification. For the most part, research has identified a relatively small difference in salaries when comparing large groups of male and female lawyers, accountants, or engineers with similar education and years of experience. Looking more carefully at the data, one will see that the so-called “pay gap” of 21 cents per $ is largely due to different career choices between men and women.


Is using salary averages really the right way to go about this?

While I concur that there’s more to evaluating salaries than just comparing the median salaries of men and women, statisticians use that measure for a reason: It is much more representative of what a typical American worker (male or female) in an industry makes than the average, precisely because it’s well-known that salary data is not evenly distributed, with a very long tail at the higher end.

But let’s say you compare the averages instead. What would you find?

My recent A&Q on entrepreneurship in the U.S. questioned several common ideas for increasing the number of startups, such as cutting taxes, building a safety net to reduce the risk of leaving a company to start one’s own business, and investing in regional clusters. The following reader proposes another solution, followed by my reply:


Most startups fail. The success rate for venture capital funded companies is about 10 percent. And those are the ones that got funded. For each of those, there are about 100 proposals. For more ordinary businesses, the typical lifespan of a new restaurant is under three years. So it's not clear that more startups help much.


Why do we need startups if most startups fail? Well, suppose this were a question about species and longevity. Why must species adapt if most of them go extinct? The answer is that evolution serves an excellent purpose for later generations of life, because the surviving species tend to be stronger, healthier, and more resilient than their ancestors.

In response to the A&Q I wrote on money in politics, the following reader wonders if stronger policing of the airwaves by the FCC could mitigate the problem (my response follows):


I think you could accomplish this by fiat, using FCC regulatory authority. Require media to allocate specific amounts of coverage to the political process as terms of use for public radio spectrum or over cable, as cable crosses over not only public property, but also over private property seized by state eminent domain.

So you basically, you look at the political process as an essential part of civic duty (such as paying taxes, or abiding laws), and when you consider that literally all broadcast media requires use of public space, it's not really so much to ask.


If the government forced the broadcast media to devote a certain amount of coverage to elections and candidates, would that level the playing field for candidates that don’t have access to millions of dollars to buy TV and radio ads?

I think this is problematic for a number of reasons.

My recent A&Q on how the U.S. can salvage Social Security questioned several solutions for how the program can pay out what was promised beyond 2034, including ways to increase revenue by raising taxes or reducing benefits. The most pertinent question is finding a solution that both feels fair to Americans and will make it through Congress. A reader offers this solution, which is to take Social Security out of the government altogether:


I would love to see the U.S. transition to something closer to the Chilean model; a mandatory retirement account placed in a broad range of bonds and index mutual funds. The money is yours, and you can pass it along to your descendants.


How could I forget about Chile? This is actually a great example to look at, as it is one of how privatizing public insurance—an idea supported by many Republicans—isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Chilean program, introduced in 1981, is a system of privately managed individual accounts that replaced its previous public system, which faced some similar problems as the U.S. system. Unlike your normal retirement savings account though, the Chilean program is mandatory. Workers in Chile contribute 10 percent of their monthly earnings to their account by law, and the maximum contribution is 20 percent. The argument for the privatized system is that it would increase national savings, as returns on private securities are riskier, but notably higher than Treasury securities.

But the Chilean private program hasn’t been problem-free.