Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can America Be Mended?

In comments last week, KitWistar wrote:
Several of the recent postings and comments have made me think: Is the US actually too large, too diverse--both within its peoples and beliefs--perhaps too litigious & antagonistic, perhaps even too petty, within itself to actually continue to have one leader who can be successful both here at home and within the global community?

Is it even possible for the US government, as we now know it, to responsibly deal with issues that truly benefit most of its people, most of the time? (I don’t believe our government currently really does and perhaps hasn’t in quite a while. . .) Can the US successfully remain one nation? Should it?

Yet, whenever I read the Constitution I am in awe, that any nation could be built on such an extraordinary & beautifully written document, and then I feel a bit of a traitor for asking such questions.

Some background for all of you out in NOfP-land: I am not a politician, I’m not a lawyer, economist or educator. I do not call myself a liberal OR a conservative. I am liberal on some issues, conservative on others. Some current issues, I believe, do not even belong in politics at all. What I DO do, is think (one of the reasons I like NOfP so much. Thank you, Carl.)

I have become reluctant, particularly here in DC, to openly discuss my political views, which may make it appear that I don’t have any.
There are several points in Kit's cris de coeur, and I doubt I can respond adequately to all, but here goes:

1) America is large and diverse, both in its people and beliefs--and thankfully so. But size isn't the problem--America's founding fathers (and certain of today's paleoconservatives) worried excessively that the democracy of Athens or Rome was only reproducible in small city-states. That's one reason why they emphasized state sovereignty--and in any event, mass communications appears to have changed that equation. Nor is it immigration, which "historically has fueled American strength and growth." Illegal immigration, of course, is a different issue altogether.

2) America certainly has become too litigious--reform of tort law (though not its elimination) is long overdue, and would cut healthcare spending by about 10 percent. (Compare to Obamacare's intended "bending of the cost curve" from 9.9 percent to 12 percent of GDP--sounds like an increase to me!)

But I can't agree that we're more antagonistic today. I haven't heard recent news-flashes about Senators beaten unconscious within the chamber itself. Newspapers formerly were propaganda house-organs for political parties (now, having switched to Democrat mouthpieces, at least one knows what not to believe). And talk of unheard of incivility forgets the comparatively recent riots during the Vietnam war and the near-endless and unnerving Watergate crisis.

3) With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the global community has changed. And, perhaps more importantly, America's policy changed in response, when President Bush in 2005 rejected "the false stability of dictatorship and stagnation [that] can only lead to deeper resentment in a troubled region, and further tragedy in free nations." In other words, no more propping up dictators merely because they were our dictators.

The disappearance of a bi-polar world and the increased emphasis in U.S. foreign policy on the spread of democracy can be deeply unsettling. For example, if the promise of the "Arab Spring" turns into a bleak mid-Winter. But I'm not ready to give up on authentic efforts of people to topple despots. And that's in part because of what the absence of genuine democracy has done to Europe--cooked its goose. Which neatly transitions to the next issue.

4) Although I don't think our government is irretrievably broken, it's hard to dispute that the economic status quo has reached its sell-by date. I warned before the election that we were heading toward a real-world test of the Meltzer-Richard hypothesis "when the voter in the exact middle of the earnings spectrum receives more in benefits from Washington than he pays in taxes." Well, we've arrived--in 2009, only 49 percent of filers had any Federal income tax liability. So, America soon must choose a path to "benefit most of its people."

In Monday's Washington Post, economics correspondent Robert Samuelson says "We're in denial":
[W]hile the economics of giveaway policies have changed, the politics haven’t. Liberals still want more spending, conservatives more tax cuts. (Although the tax burden has stayed steady, various "cuts" have offset projected increases and shifted the burden.) With a few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans haven’t embraced detailed takeaway policies to reconcile Americans’ appetite for government benefits with their distaste for taxes. President Obama has provided no leadership. Aside from Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, few Republicans have.

No one wants to take away; it’s more fun to give. All of 2011’s budget feuds -- over the debt ceiling, the supercommittee, the payroll tax cut -- skirted the central issues. There’s a legitimate debate about how fast deficits should be reduced to avoid jeopardizing the economic recovery, notes Charles Blahous, a White House official in George W. Bush’s administration. But the long-term budget problem, as he says, stems from Social Security, Medicare and other health programs.

Any resolution of the budget impasse must repudiate, at least partially, the past half-century’s politics. Conservatives look at the required tax increases and say, "No way." Liberals look at the required benefit cuts and say, "No way."

Each reverts to scripted evasions. Liberals imply (wrongly) that taxing the rich will solve the long-term budget problem. It won’t. For example, the Forbes 400 richest Americans have a collective wealth of $1.5 trillion. If the government simply confiscated everything they own, and turned them into paupers, it would barely cover the one-time 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. Conservatives deplore "spending" in the abstract, ignoring the popularity of much spending, especially Social Security and Medicare.

So the political system is failing. It’s stuck in the past. It can’t make desirable choices about the future. It can’t resolve deep conflicts.

An alternative theory is that we’re muddling our way to a messy consensus. All the studies and failed negotiations lay the groundwork for ultimate accommodation. Perhaps. But it’s just as likely that this year’s partisan scapegoating implies more partisan scapegoating.
I agree with most of this--entitlements are the core problem; Obama's ducked the issue; the commitment of Democrats to run a Mediscare platform "to scare grandma should not be underestimated."

But I also think that the fiscal crisis brings political opportunity. The next President -- whether Democrat or Republican -- must begin to tame the entitlement beast. That person must have the courage of Prime Minister Thatcher: she severed the link between state pensions and average private sector earnings. We must both decrease or eliminate cost of living hikes in Social Security benefits and means-test Social Security and Medicare. Ultimately, we must modernize all entitlement programs: Social Security privatized, and Medicare disciplined by market forces.

Oh, yeah, did I mention repealing Obamacare? That too--whether by Supreme Court decision or a Republican President and Congress or a triangulating second-term Obama.

BTW, history demonstrates that pro-growth policies and free trade are the most effective anti-poverty program, a fact that this Administration apparently never learned. Commerce and capitalism creates wealth; redistribution only impoverishes one to support another. (I'm going to skip the over-hyped and occasionably laughable claim of increasing income inequality--I've addressed it before, it's ever more controversial, and an update demands its own post.)

I do not pretend this will be an easy sell. Which neatly transitions to the next issue.

5) I share Kit's reverence for our Constitution. Its beauty lies in its brevity -- a scant 34 pages in 20-point type. But its especial brilliance is the Framers' assessment of human nature and the solution they devised:
Thus expert omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of popular passion, and public omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of expert arrogance. In the view of the framers, there is no omniscience; there is only imperfect humanity. We therefore need checks on all of our various excesses, and a system that forces us to think through important decisions as best we can. This may well be the essential insight of our constitutional system: Since there is no perfection in human affairs, any system of government has to account for the permanent imperfections of the people who are both governing and governed, and this is best achieved through constitutional forms that compel self-restraint and enable self-correction.
In other words, process is the answer; ideas not in the Constitutional text are neither enshrined or prohibited, but instead "are the provenance of politics, to be settled numerically":
the founding fathers didn't expect voter unanimity on controversial issues. Instead, they created a process to address disagreement--a relatively immutable Constitution, a Congress with limited Federal powers, separation of powers, a list of untouchable rights, and an expectation that state legislatures would reflect the will of their own citizens.
One of those relatively immutable rights is, of course, the 10th Amendment, designed as a limitation on Federal power
that devolve[s] decisionmaking to the lowest possible unit of government, such as states or municipalities. This tends to ensure that citizens have the maximum possible ability to monitor and participate in policy determinations, making law and regulation the responsibility of legislative and executive bodies most closely connected to those directly affected.

America's founders didn't presume they possessed all truth. So they created a process whereby each state and its citizens could ponder and pick the policy they preferred. Even if others disagree; no one state's policy is compulsory for any other. Even if misguided; a democracy is flexible, and can always change its mind.
That's a long-winded way of answering "yes": we can remain a single nation, within a Federalist system of representative democracy, with a leader and legislature in Washington and 50 leaders and legislatures in each state. Sooner or later, more voters and elected officials will awake to the dangers (e.g., public sector union abuses and pension burdens). That's assuming, of course, that we "Occupy the 10th Amendment."

Conclusion: Don't give up on this country. Unlike the Norwegian Blue, American Exceptionalism isn't dead--just resting. It's your call whether or not to share your opinion -- though I think polite objection wise.

However vocal you chose to be, don't retreat into despair. Selling doom is the sole capitalism progressives understand--and have cornered the market. American politics isn't broken, and don't count our people or potential out. Sooner rather than later, once again, it will be "Morning in America."


OBloodyHell said...

One unmentioned problem is the "God Damn America" crowd, of whom President Downgrade is a card-carrying member since birth.

One of the biggest challenges facing the USA as a whole is the social cancer we call Postmodern Liberalism, which sets in its targets for rapacious destruction the entirety of the memes upon which Western Civ, Anglo-Saxon heritage, and particularly American culture, are founded. The original foundational notions of Greek thought -- of the idea that there is an actual Truth in the world, that it can be known by man, and the reasoning process by which one acquires it is accessible to everyone is under direct and concerted attack by the PM Left.

Until they are not just resisted but totally disinherited, their ideas and notions rejected categorically by most "right" (correct, not politically right) thinking people, this society is under a death sentence from an internalized cancer. The end is in sight, it can only be held off without them being exposed as the evil they are.

Anonymous said...

My respects to Kit for the question, and to Carl for the heroic shot at answering it.