Readers’ ideas: At the start of Obama’s second term, the problems and solutions on our minds

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

What’s the big idea?

That’s what Yahoo News asked its readers this month: Which one big idea could help the country address our most pressing national problem? Which solution—even if it's "out there" or controversial—could go far in tackling an issue that affects millions of Americans?

After Barack Obama delivers his second inaugural address on Monday, the country will again face another four years of the same hurdles, including a still-smarting economy, gun violence, foreign entanglements and health care battles.

How do we hammer away at those problems in his next term and beyond? We requested creative and outside-the-box ideas that may not have been tried before. (Yet they still had to be credible, grounded in reality and reasonably doable. As we admonished previously: Sorry, no superintelligent monkey doctors.)

You offered a swarm of interesting brainstorms—for instance: mandatory gun ownership, drug legalization, congressional penalties, hemp farming, Social Security for everyone, and mandatory recycling—and we found experts in various fields to comment on the feasibility of your proposals.

Here are excerpts from several ideas, followed by reaction from experts we asked to comment.

We received hundreds of suggestions, so we’ve created a Tumblr that displays many more.

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For better gun control, we need public gun education
By Phil Dotree

To effectively combat gun violence, we need a complete shift in the tone of our conversation. Here's a radical suggestion that will never gain traction: required gun education in public schools. Not a trip to the firing range, not sharpshooting lessons, but a brief addition to every health class that includes basic gun safety.

A basic education would help to dispel some of the myths that lead to impractical gun legislation. For instance, many gun-control advocates don't know that "silencers" don't actually silence guns, (they just suppress the noise) or that automatic weapons are already highly regulated. Education might compel a more civil discourse, which would allow for better laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

More of Dotree’s proposal.

Experts’ responses:

Children understand guns, but it's adults who refuse action
by Tom Mauser

After my son Daniel was shot and killed at Columbine, I found myself receiving suggestions for how to stem gun violence. One was this simplistic notion that if we just better educated our children about the danger of guns, they would not abuse them. As I responded back then, I think the two Columbine killers would have laughed at the irony of being given a gun education class.

In a proposal, Yahoo News reader Phil Dotree makes a reasonable call for gun education as a "brief addition to every health class," but then also says he wishes to dispel myths that lead to bad gun legislation. Sorry, but it’s adults who write gun legislation, not kids, and we haven’t done a very good job.

More of Mauser’s response.

A public school gun education would have merit, pitfalls
By Dr. Harry L. Wilson

Phil Dotree’s call for education on firearms has serious merit. Education on any topic is inherently useful, and the debate over guns would benefit tremendously with more knowledge and less heat. That said, there would likely be a long and protracted battle over what would be included in the curriculum. Survey data suggest that those who are more familiar with firearms are less fearful of guns, and they are less likely to favor gun control measures.

The unfortunate reality in the current gun control debate is that while there may be some common ground between the two sides, there is so much mutual distrust that any consensus is difficult to reach. One person’s "common-sense gun regulation" is another person’s "infringement on Second Amendment rights."

More of Wilson’s response.


Add a 13th school year for job and college preparation
By Sylvia Cochran

Many of today's high school graduates are woefully unprepared for entering a competitive job market or succeeding in college. The National Review Online notes that nationwide approximately 40 percent of college students drop out, which gives the United States the dubious distinction of having "the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world."

Education reform must therefore target all of America's high schoolers. The best way to prepare them for real-life job market conditions is the addition of a 13th school year. This would apply to up-and-coming grads intending to go to college as well as those planning on joining the work force immediately after graduation.

More of Cochran’s proposal.

Expert’s response:

A 15th year, but who’s counting?
By Dr. Robert Maranto

On reading Sylvia Cochran’s cogent, but ultimately misguided, proposal for a required "13th year" after high school but before college or work, I could not help but recall the old Woody Allen quip about a restaurant with awful food "and such small portions." Presumably, what some schools fail to do in 12—counting kindergarten and preschool really 14 yearsthe addition of another year will fix.

That works in models but not in the real world, where real people have other ideas.

Given such goals, lacking rigor for 14 years does not make success more likely in a 15th; on the contrary, it lets kids and teachers relax since nothing really counts until extra innings. And anyway, kids vary. An extra year would be a boon to some and hell for others. Why force everyone into the same timeframe?

More of Maranto’s response.

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Uncle Sam should want us to serve
By Thomas Daniels

In 1963, "serving your country" for approximately half of the citizenry of the United States meant being shipped to a foreign land and putting their lives and health in constant danger. Fifty years later, "serving your country" for most of the citizenry of the United States is a platitude we offer to veterans in a paltry thanks for their real sacrifice.

Americans have become entitled, less intelligent and less healthy. And in another 50 years, the America we know may be non-existent because of it. Americans need to get over themselves and realize that just because you are born in this country does not make you special, that there is a price to pay for the life we enjoy. Requiring everyone in the country serve the country for two years would make us all more intelligent, healthier, more patriotic and more grateful for the life that we do have.

More of Daniels’ proposal.

Expert’s response:

Required national service would serve needy, give meaningful work
By Dr. Nina Eliasoph

It might seem outrageous to suggest that such service be mandatory. But it's no more outlandish to suggest that people should be forced to serve their nations by helping people survive and thrive than it is to suggest that people be forced to serve their nations by killing people, is it? All nations need people to take care of what's shared—roads, schools, parks, beaches—and all nations need people to take care of their old people, young people, sick and disabled people.

As it stands now, people get care only if their families are able to give it or can afford to pay for it. But with this program, if a government-sponsored volunteer helped a disabled toddler, for example, the parents' wealth wouldn't matter. The kid would get the care.

More of Eliasoph’s response.

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Make online voting mandatory; abolish the electoral college
By Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Approximately half the Americans eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election didn't. And many of those who did vote were subjected to waiting hours at polls on Election Day. Despite the typically unimpressive turnout, this presidential campaign was the most expensive ever waged. The Associated Press pegs that figure at an astonishing $2 billion, including $900 million spent on television ads. Two-thirds was dumped in just four states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Another five swing states that tally up hefty electoral votes defined the race.

Something is wrong. Here's how we could fix it.

More of Farr’s proposal.

Voting shouldn't be mandatory, but it should be easier
By Dr. Peter Hanson

The case for making voting as easy as possible is strong. The United States requires its citizens to jump through more hoops to vote than other countries and this depresses turnout. For example, our population is mobile but Americans must re-register to vote each time they move. Inevitably, some people who want to vote fail to re-register in time and are unable to cast a ballot. Simple reforms such as allowing people to register on Election Day would help more citizens to participate in our democracy.

Mandatory voting is less appealing. On the pro side, it might make our pool of voters a better reflection of our actual population. People who are poor, young or minority face barriers that make them less likely to vote. Requiring everyone to vote might reduce this disparity and ensure that all parts of society are heard more equally.

More of Hanson’s response.

Check out additional ideas from readers and add your own at our "What's the Big Idea?" Tumblr site.