15 March 2010

II - What's Wrong With America

America’s current problems in government stem, ultimately, from America’s somewhat twisted society. Puritanical about sex, overtly religious, in thrall to entertainment in all forms, and bored by anything deeper than a wading pool, we have created a society where it actually makes rational sense for politicians to engage in heated shouting matches that only interest their core supporters and fringes, for news organizations to televise the shouting and leave it at that, for everyone to wear their beliefs (religious and otherwise) on their sleeves and take offence at anyone who would question them, and for voters to remain ignorant of the issues and learn only superficial facts about their candidates. Then these candidates get into office and quite rationally refuse to compromise on anything or get anything done. We get the government we deserve; the best and worst thing about democracy.

It’s not fair to claim that our government does absolutely nothing, though. Even in 2009 and 2010, government has actually done significant things that have had serious implications for America, some good and some bad. And here are some of them, passed during supposedly the most bitterly divided Congress in memory. TARP—the bank bailout—a $700 billion item that probably forestalled a much deeper recession, passed at the end of 2008. A $787 billion stimulus package was passed with surprisingly little fight. SCHIP was extended and improved, mortage and securities fraud penalties were tightened, payments to veterans for service-connected disabilities were increased, programs to help families avoid foreclosure were created, enacted a new land conservation law, among other things. The stimulus bill alone contained so many provisions—tax breaks and credits for college tuition, home-buying, energy conservation, renewable-energy production, among other things, expansion of the broadband network, development of smart electric grids, money to encourage computerization of health information to ease sharing of data, money to test new health treatments… this was all in one bill. If this had been all separate bills no one would be saying Congress was paralyzed. So let’s not go overboard.

America is not ungovernable, but it is very hard to accomplish major reform. And the quality of our leadership is shockingly poor. Actually, that’s not true; the quality is poor, but it shouldn’t come as a shock. Is Eric Massa a particularly horrible person who somehow got in office, or is he merely a reflection of society? If we picked someone at random from each Congressional district, how many Eric Massa’s would we get? How many Evan Bayh’s? How many Rod Blagojevich’s?

You can believe one of three things, as I see it: either power corrupts people, and once they get into office they turn corrupt; or power attracts corrupt and corruptible people, so it’s likely that anyone who runs for office is prone to bad behavior; or the people in office are no better or worse than the rest of us, and society as a whole is reflected in its government. I tend to favor the third view, although Lord Acton’s aphorism is still correct and power definitely does corrupt. Let’s say this: you and I may not do the sorts of things that get people like Tom DeLay and Rod Blagojevich in trouble, but we do things that get us in trouble in other ways. We just aren’t on TV. Perhaps it isn’t that power corrupts, but rather that power exacerbates corruption.

In any event, I think fundamentally what’s wrong with our government is that it makes sense for politicians to cater to a base or even to the fringe, and there is no pressure on them to compromise and fix problems because any fix is going to be unpopular with some people and leave the politicians open to attack. It’s not even about compromise; sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to do something that might be unpopular with some people. These are rational choices in the short-term. The problem is nobody’s thinking long-term. And neither are we as a society; we are obsessed with the short term, and turn our brains off when anyone starts talking about the big picture or big ideas. Give me what I want now, and we’ll talk about the future when it gets here. Changing that philosophy will fix what ails American government, but can it be changed?

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