The Self-Fulfilling Function of Political Dysfunction

September 13th, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Here’s an engaging oped by Jon Grinspan that makes one of my favorite points, one which is obvious but under-appreciated, I think: generalized and pervasive negativity about government perpetuates broken government.

As Grinspan (a name that sounds like the answer to the crossword puzzle clue: “happy central banker”) puts it:

First, we need to realize that surging anger at Washington favors those who would like to drown government in a bathtub. When Democrats blame politicians as a group, they support the idea that our system can’t be trusted to make positive change in Americans’ lives, while pushing candidates into a quiet reliance on big donors.

During the latest installment of the debt ceiling crisis, I wrote:

I’m reminded of a particularly pernicious rule of today’s politics: the self-fulfilling prophecy of dysfunction.  Many of today’s conservatives run for office on a platform that government doesn’t work.  And when they’re elected, they work their hardest to prove it true.  They say, “we’re Greece!” when of course we’re nothing like Greece, then they threaten default to make us Greece.

This is an alarmingly simple ploy, but once you tune into it you see it everywhere.  The prophets of dysfunction must convince us a spending crisis, an entitlement crisis, and debt crisis despite their factual inaccuracies.  It there’s no crisis—if, as is clearly the case [and this is even more the case now than when I wrote this over a year ago]—our fiscal challenges can actually be met with reasonable policies involving analysis (e.g., squeezing inefficiencies out of health care delivery) and compromise (spending cuts and revenue increases), these hair-on-fire-slash-and-burners have no use.

An important job of progressives throughout history is the exposure of such false prophets.  Of course, these prophets have huge profits riding on their ruse, so they won’t leave quietly.  But we must expose them nevertheless.  Our system is broken because a broken system works for the false prophets of dysfunction.  It doesn’t work for the rest of us.

To be completely candid, I myself play into this by occasionally and lazily inveighing against “Congress” as if it’s a monolith and “gridlock” as if everyone is equally implicated. I well know—because I interact with them—that there are members on both sides of the aisle who want to work together to accurately diagnose and try to solve problems. And members who decidedly do not.

In this regard, those of us who believe that there’s an essential role for government in meeting the challenges that private markets cannot—pollution externalities, risk pooling, social insurance, safety nets, countercyclical policies, enforcement of fair trade, education, public infrastructure, financial and product market regulation—must name names and have the courage to ruffle feathers (Grinspan drops the ball a bit here too, I thought).

Sweeping broadsides against the institution are both wrong and play right in the hands from which the keys to good government must be taken.

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4 comments in reply to "The Self-Fulfilling Function of Political Dysfunction"

  1. Bob Lucore says:

    I think this discussion could also benefit from a careful recognition that politicians are not synonymous with government. There are hundreds of thousands of dedicated public servants who go to work every day as employees of the various levels of government. Nearly all of them want to see government succeed, because they have chosen to dedicate their working lives to serving the public. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, but that has been lacking since the ascendence of Reaganism and the blame-the-government crowd.

  2. Robert Buttons says:

    “Sixteen female U.S. senators have sent a letter to commissioner Roger Goodell calling for a “real zero-tolerance policy” against domestic violence in the NFL.”

    Nice. The core competency of govt is law enforcement, yet these senators, by imploring the private sector to take action, are admitting govt is impotent to stop violence against women. (Crime stats show they aren’t doing such a great job in stopping violence against men.)

  3. mitakeet says:

    I agree, much of our current dysfunction is the result of a thought-out, targeted plan. The Post Office debacle is another clear example:

    However, we get the government we want since collectively we would rather elect people who have the resources (recently private and hidden) to convince us to vote against our best interests. Until (if) we-the-people start to elect actual representatives, we are ‘doomed’ to our current paradigm.

  4. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Agree that courage is essential in addressing the mess we’re in.

    In my youth, ‘government’ meant schools, roads, irrigation canals, dams, electricity: things that worked. They functioned: you were able to turn on a light because the government regulated the electric utility so that it benefitted everyone. Same with water, sewer, and roads. Also, telephone.

    There were metrics: # gallons of water over a dam/hour; # fields under cultivation with $X revenue per year. # houses with phones; # houses with sanitary sewers.
    The metrics were simple enough for just about everyone to get their heads around.

    The folks who built the canals, dams, and power grids were sturdy, courageous people.
    Deserts, rattlesnakes, raging rivers, acres of swamps, and biting cold ice storms did not deter them. If they weren’t courageous, they wouldn’t have survived.

    Now, we are plagued by ill-defined, squishy ‘governmenty’ apparitions, like ‘war on terror’ – what are the metrics on that?! (We seem to be creating more ‘terrorists’, not fewer, so where’s the accountability?! – And I don’t mean for the military; where’s the accountability for failed diplomacy and bad foreign policies!? And FWIW, do the people making those foreign policies — or voting to send munitions — even speak Arabic? Do they actually know where the weapons end up? Or is their experience limited to academia and think tanks near D.C.? Do they actually have any practical experience? Or not? **)

    There seems to be more ego than courage in today’s public policies -whether about domestic issues, or about foreign policy: we have endless rhetoric. We have ‘PR’, and ‘news cycles’ and posturing. Meh.

    The same electeds who can’t seem to put anyone in Wall Street in jail, who can’t seem to restructure the financial sector and reign it in, and who can’t seem to constrain tax havens all hold votes and give speeches about ‘terror’ and other amorphous fear-mongery threats: I now suspect that ‘terror’ is for the politically lazy, culturally myopic, and historically challenged. (Although there are crazed zealots in the world: global warming, diabetes, and energy costs directly impact the lives of more Americans, even if those problems don’t look as dramatic on the tv.)

    Similarly, the ‘war’ on poverty seems like a domestic version of trying to abolish ‘terror’. Amorphous feel-goodism creates no end of antipathies and antagonisms, to say nothing of confusion. It’s amorphous, there are no clear metrics, and it’s hard to know what ‘success’ would look like — or why a revised tax code, outlawing tax havens, and revised corporate governance couldn’t help address the root problems that underly ‘poverty’.

    We need to stop chasing ghosts and apparitions, and stop policing the world.
    It’s crazy, and there’s no end to it.
    It doesn’t ask anything of most Americans, other than to keep paying taxes and ‘trust us because we are experts’.

    When did we become so afraid of people an ocean away that we focused 65% of our attention on them, and lost sight of how to analyze and address our own economic – and infrastructure – problems?

    Cowards let other people make their priorities.
    Cowards also tend to whine about how problems – like ‘failed government’ – are ‘everyone else’s fault’.

    We should have enough courage to stop allowing the tail to wag the dog, and we really ought to have the courage to step up to the long-term infrastructure deficits, energy issues, and pollution problems that damage our quality of life. All those problems could create a lot of very interesting, reasonably paying jobs – but they’re not for the faint of heart.

    ** I’ve recently started reading the journals of Lewis & Clark. In incident after incident, they had to interact with different Native American tribes and learn about different cultures in order to achieve their objectives. I find myself thinking, “If Meriwether Lewis or Wm Clark were in the military today, what kind of advice would they give about the M.E.? And would the electeds even listen to them…?” The point being that the Lewis & Clark expedition succeeded in part because they had ‘hands on’, practical experience and that enabled them to be effective.

    Pres. Jefferson, was able to get Congress to approve about $5,000 for the expedition – he’d waited for over 20 years before he was able to push the project to fruition. Talk about political patience, commitment, and vision — what a heritage!