Cicero Action

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Joe Lonsdale, Chairman

A Message from the Chairman:

“It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”

President Ronald Reagan professed these words during his First Inaugural Address forty years ago; they ring even truer today. Our country which designed the coronavirus vaccine in two days is the same one that ranks behind other advanced economies in life expectancy, drug-related mortality, obesity, and diabetes. America is home to dozens of the world’s greatest research universities, but our average colleges graduate less than half their students and leave millions saddled with debt and few job prospects. We’re capable of unleashing a global revolution in information technologies but can’t manage to change the crushingly slow operations at most DMVs.

There is no shortage of big dreams in the American private sector; it is time to put American ingenuity to work in the public sector as well.
At the Cicero Action, we see hundreds of conceptual gaps when comparing the way society currently works to the way it should work. By harnessing incentives, accountability and innovation, we can close these gaps and provide real solutions to every major social challenge our country faces today. The problem is that our political class defends the status quo on behalf of special interests that stand in the way of innovation. These interests lobby federal, state, and local governments to enact crony laws and rules, restrict open market competition, and prevent innovation that would increase standards of living for everyday Americans.
Our mission is to loosen the special interest stranglehold on government, and inspire political leaders to fight to improve the lives of all Americans by passing laws that enable the best ideas to win.

We are policy entrepreneurs: innovators tackling challenges that private markets can’t address.

The first step for a policy entrepreneur is to identify major social problems that could be solved by realigning incentives or harnessing market competition and then outline the solution. Our team of policy experts and economists designs system-level reforms to major challenges in healthcare, education, criminal justice, housing, homelessness, and other areas. 

In our whitepapers, we describe the ideal versions of policy reforms rather than describing what’s politically feasible. Even if an idealized version of our reform is unlikely to pass, inspiring policymakers with a vision of what’s theoretically possible can give them the courage to negotiate hard for a reform that moves us closer to the best system for our country.

Next, we study the political landscape in a given state or city and determine why aversion of our reform hasn’t already been implemented. Typically, the answer is that a collection of special interests — e.g. prison guards’ unions, trade groups for mediocre colleges and universities, Big Pharma, the American MedicalAssociation, etc. — has been lobbying against the reform for years and no principled groups have been strong enough to oppose them.

Once we have a map of the other political actors with a stake for or against our reform, we engage in the “art of the possible” and advance our reforms in state capitols. Our goal is to convince key decision makers, including party leadership, committee chairs, governor’s offices, and subject-matter experts, that passing our reform is politically feasible and desirable. We cut through the noise and expose the bald-faced lies told by special interest groups to protect the status quo.
Of course, compromise and dilution are inevitable as one negotiates a bill into a law: a reform that achieves most of what it originally intended is better than a failed bill which accomplishes nothing! One of the reasons we chose Cicero as our namesake was his ability to understand political limits, even as he strove to maintain his philosophical ideal of the Roman Republic. By contrast, Cato was rigidly idealistic and ultimately chose to take his own life rather than attempt to guide Caesar towards a more republican form of government. Some principles are worth dying for, but to win the war you can’t put it all on the line in every battle.
As we write in February 2021, we’re deploying this playbook in 8 states around the country. 

Consider a reform that would allow qualified foreign physicians to practice in a given state if they complete foreign residency programs that meet the accreditation criteria applied to American residency programs. Physician shortages are one of the greatest barriers preventing Americans from getting better and more timely care, and America’s ratio of physicians to overall population is one of the lowest in the developed world. Yet many states have rules barring internationally trained physicians from practice, costing our system billions of dollars a year.

Competition from international doctors would slow the rise of doctors’ wages, which is great for healthcare consumers. But many medical associations which represent doctors don’t take this threat lightly, and we expect them to hotly contest our proposal. If forced to compromise, we might negotiate a reform that requires foreign doctors to practice for some period in rural areas where the shortage of doctors is most acute, so that physician competition increases gradually over time. 

If implemented, this reform would reduce the physician shortage in the United States and expand access to cheap medical care. Accredited foreign programs would benefit by becoming more competitive and attractive to medical students. Domestic healthcare providers would be able to proactively treat more patients and provide higher quality care.

Another example: tying state-funding for colleges to students’ earnings. Metrics like graduation rates can easily be gamed by colleges that over-index on getting students out the door rather than preparing them for success in the job market. Instead, colleges should be incentivized to experiment with different ideas to boost student incomes such as modernizing program offerings and building relationships with employers through co-ops and other programs that offer work experience. The best reforms are not policy “commandments” for how things should work, they are rewards systems that allow local leaders to develop solutions that can evolve over time. 

TexasState Technical Colleges are an example of educational institutions that have gotten this incentive structure right. The state of Texas gathers data on student earnings for five years after graduation, and any student with income above a minimum threshold contributes to the state funding received by the school. This incentive structure has worked wonders. In the six years following its launch, graduates of Texas State Technical Colleges saw a 61% increase in first-year earnings. We need to learn from their experience so all American students can enjoy similar results.

Poorly run community colleges and for-profit colleges that are failing students would vigorously resist any form of performance-based funding. If forced to compromise, we might implement changes gradually. Rather than pegging all opportunity-based funding to student earnings, we could agree to only put a portion of the funding at stake, or start by creating performance-based funding for certain segments of higher ed, such as associates degrees.

Innovation is a term society has long reserved for technologists and businessmen. After all, the tremendous technological advances of the past few decades have changed the world. But innovation knows no bounds: with the right conditions, it can sprout anywhere - even in government.

This legislative session, Cicero Action is fighting for the reforms above and others, including incentives proven to reduce recidivism, reduce prices in healthcare, and curb reckless state lending practices. Rather than continue to grumble from the sidelines with our friends and family, our mission is to enter the ring and partner with policymakers.

When ideas are as free to compete in the public sphere as they are in the private sphere, no special interests will be powerful enough to slow the best ideas from taking hold. And as good policy unleashes innovation, even the least well off will be able to achieve levels of prosperity unthinkable to us today.

We have every right to dream heroic dreams.

Join us in our work to unleash the potential of the American people and make good on the American promise.

Joe Lonsdale