What’s Wrong with America?

October 20th, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Reflecting on the recent shutdown/debt ceiling debacle, the resolution of which is only a few months’ respite until the same self-imposed deadlines reappear, you’ve got to wonder: what’s wrong with America?

Certainly this is the question I’m hearing from friends and other observers from abroad.  Economic authorities, like the IMF or Asian bankers with large US holdings are understandingly expressing alarm.  According to a British critic, “the rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp. The pomposity of its architecture can no longer dignify the log-rolling, the gerrymandering, the lobbyists’ egregious power, the money sloshing everywhere and the partisan polarization that drips from every news program.” The Chinese news agency, somewhat oddly when you consider the value of their dollar holdings, argued for a “de-Americanized world” that would include a “new international reserve currency that is to be created to replace the dominant U.S. dollar.”

It’s particularly hard for foreigners with whom I’ve interacted in recent months to grasp the idea that Obamacare is somehow implicated in this latest round of dysfunction.  They view our health reform much as I do, as I wrote a few weeks ago: a technical solution to a hybrid public/private good problem, about as interesting and subversive as a utility company.  How could this set of arcane changes to our health care delivery system possibly lead politicians to willingly default on our debt?

I suspect the answer to the question of what’s gone wrong has many answers.  My readers know mine: it’s the result of the toxic, and uniquely American, cocktail of concentrated wealth and money in politics.  That combination blocks the policy set that would begin to address the challenges we face and promotes the ones you see around you: constant fiscal squabbles powered by rhetorical obsession with public debts and deficits that has a) nothing to do with our actual fiscal challenges (ones that Obamacare-type changes may actually be helping us to meet) and b) is “rhetorical” in the sense that it’s not about real solutions as about reducing taxes and shrinking government.

Listening to the punditry over the last few days, the answer I hear most often is that we as a nation and an electorate are deeply polarized.  There’s solid evidence for that but allow me to assert, without counter-evidence, that this explanation seems thin to me.  I wonder if this is just another symptom of my primary explanation.  I wonder how deep this divisiveness really goes.  I wonder if it could be relatively quickly changed by leaders and movements speaking truth to economic and political power.

The US economy has left large swaths of people behind.  History shows that such periods are ripe for demagogues, and here again, deep pockets buy not only the policy set that protects them, but the “think tanks,” research results, and media presence that foments the polarization that insulates them further.

Meanwhile, the alleged political representatives of the rest of us do not offer much of a counter-narrative.  At the highest levels of political and policy power, the inequality, immobility, wage stagnation, sticky poverty rates, persistently slack labor markets are written off to the benign forces of technology and globalization.  Other than some redistribution, even progressive leaders don’t really know what to do to address these trends.

If you think that all sounds too pat, ask yourself: why, after the debacle we’ve just been through, the policy debate did not move at all toward that critical list of economic issues noted just above, but instead to…deficits and debt?

What would happen if a political leader were to organize solely around these economic issues, without folding in the usual stuff about balancing the budget (OWS never got there)?  Not to ignore that it is absolute essential to get on a sustainable budget path but to put that all-encompassing debate into its proper perspective.  It’s the tail, not the dog.

Imagine a platform based not on deficit reduction but on the realization that lots more people need jobs that pay living wages, which means higher minimum wages, work supports, manufacturing/trade policy, full employment fiscal and monetary policy, direct job creation, and work sharing.  BTW, that’s not an expensive agenda (the only new cost would be direct job creation, and I’ve got a pretty cheap model in mind; good fiscal policy is a cyclical cost—not saying it pays for itself, but in terms of lost output, it’s expensive not to do it).

OK, enough blue-skying on a beautiful blue-sky, autumn day.  All I’m saying is: I can easily see why the world is deeply nervous about where America is and where we’re headed.  But I’m not convinced our electorate is so polarized that we can’t change course.  We’ve just got to give people a better choice.

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12 comments in reply to "What’s Wrong with America?"

  1. The Raven says:

    “What would happen if a political leader were to organize solely around these economic issues, without folding in the usual stuff about balancing the budget (OWS never got there)? Not to ignore that it is absolute essential to get on a sustainable budget path but to put that all-encompassing debate into its proper perspective. It’s the tail, not the dog.”

    Identity issues, historically, have trumped economic issues. Consider the failure of the Second (socialist) International. And that’s what’s happening now. Our radical right faction has been lied to, over and over. Their world has been overset. First 9/11, then the biggest financial fraud in history threw hundreds of thousands out of their homes, ate up their savings and their jobs, and now a black president. They want someone to blame in the worst way, and here is the radical right, to offer them that someone.

  2. Tom in MN says:

    Polarized is too nice a word:


    I view the term “Obamacare” as racist. AFAIK, it first appeared with The President depicted as a witch doctor on a poster with this title.

    Fear is the best way to get people to act irrationally against their own self interest and racism is all about fear.

  3. PJR says:

    Deficits and debt are on the table because it is the most effective sales pitch for those who seek to roll back social programs established primarily in the 1930s and 1960s, especially expensive benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (From that perspective, Obamacare is awful because it goes in the exact opposite direction.) The Dem counterattack is to insist upon higher taxes on the wealthy rather than cuts to social benefit levels–this is a counterattack, preferable to defending deficits and debt, which don’t sell well. But the deficit/debt is not the key issue.

  4. save_the_rustbelt says:

    It is more likely we will see more trade agreements and floods of aliens with new pathways to citizenship, both of which will hurt US workers.

  5. purple says:

    I don’t much care what Asian bankers think. China made the foolish decision to base the solvency of their central bank on the value of the U.S. dollar. That was their decision, not ours.

    Instead of lecturing the U.S. these mostly deeply corrupt Asian countries could fix their own internal demand problems, which they won’t, because it would mean their nouveau riche couldn’t afford their personal drivers and fleet of house helpers.

    Boosting internal demand requires raising wages, which Asian export powers won’t do because it would upset their own sweet little apple cart. And you can throw Germany in the mix there to.

    The U.S. is far from the only problem in the world. Without us binging on the world’s products the whole globalization thing would have collapsed years ago. So they better appreciate us fat Americans a bit.

    • Chatham says:

      I have to agree with this. That’s not to say that the US isn’t a mess, but the elites in Europe and China seem perfectly willing to screw up their own countries. And I’ll have to say, the pro-austerity rhetoric and US debt concern trolling play precisely in the hands of the Tea Party.

  6. Denis Drew says:

    A randomly picked grand-type-jury could become an informal third branch of government. Such a directly powerless citizens branch could informally set the public agenda in accordance with the needs and interests of everyday people – without worrying about the tangles of expending political capital and avoiding controversy and the usual political stagnation inducers.

    Obama and the Clintons and friends want to help everybody, just nobody in particular. They pick a limited number of objectives each year and fight them to a standstill with Republicans who know how to rouse their own populist base – perpetually leaving untouched the key bread-and-butter issues like doubling the minimum wage and rewriting the entire American social landscape with legally mandated, sector wide labor agreements – issues that promise no immediate results (at least not in the eyes out of touch elitists.

    Let’s face it; Obamians and Clintonites are academic liberals who do not relate to what immediately interests everyday Joan. They never catch on that if they were pushing hard on minimum wage reform and re-unionization they would finally whet people’s appetites for a national round-robin that could potentially heal their daily economic and therefore worst social sufferings and would build more political capital than they knew how to spend even if denied immediate success (though I don’t know what that should be).

  7. Dave says:

    Jared, you have hit the nail on the head! I’m in absolute, complete agreement with this.

    The idea that the American people are as polarized as the politicians say is just not accurate. Most of the people are only polarized around the party itself, not the issues. On the issues, this is very much a center-left country, not a center-right country.

    But the polls we see ask Americans to identify themselves on the political spectrum, and to do that they have no choice but to ignore the issues and go with identity, and they tend mostly to identify with issues of their own character and shy away from supporting a party that actually helps people that are less fortunate then themselves.

    It is a complete quirk of psychology, and there’s absolutely no reason for it at all except that the money has found a way to exploit our psychological makeup to compound the wealth of the already wealthy.

    With the right political leadership, we could change direction on a dime, but we need a narrative that matches the issues with the self identity of the voters. We have been sorely lacking that narrative and that leadership figure.

  8. Denis Drew says:

    If income taxes were adjusted monthly in direct step with increased or decreased expenditures, newspapers would have to add a new section for avid taxpayers to follow the latest additions and cuts.

    The new $400 million Bronx courthouse opened by mad Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 – to take over from the brand-new $120 million court opened in 1977 in order to supplement the classic landmark courthouse up on the hill during the decade plus criminal case overflow – would have been trounced by immediately attentive tax payers (and by the real people grand jury proposed in the comment above!). Ditto for the new $600 million Brooklyn courthouse – also opened after crime had declined 4X.

    A monthly adjusted income tax and an informal political grand-type-jury would put society’s truly deepest concerns on the very front of the political burners and keep them hot until resolved.

  9. Fred Donaldson says:

    You mention a leader organizing around economic principles, which would surely change the argument from pro and anti abortion, legal or undocumented, gay or man and woman, affirmative action or merit, and focus it on what’s really wrong with America – inequality and government control by the elite.

    There is so much economic bad policy similarity between the parties, that a third and fourth party seems the only solution. However, with our current media and focus on “coming together” and endorsing the political winner, I don’t think much will change in my remaining years.

    It is significant that a group of perhaps ten Senators and twenty Representatives would hold a balance of power in many votes, enough so that some attention would be paid to how jobs and inequality of income should be addressed.

    After 50 years in the newspaper business and talking to everyone from bankers to skid row alcoholics, there is a common theme on economic issues outside the Beltway. All of these folks do not agree on social issues and are turned off by the two parties and their obsession with divisive appeals to base emotions. They do come together in appreciation of common sense economics, rather than special favors for certain businesses and individuals at the expense of the public.

    If you are for or against abortion wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose a representative in Washington whose concern is jobs and improvement in our infrastructure, not a menu of right wing allegiance to a national chamber or a deceased economics fiction writer named Remington or Rand?

    And by the same logic why shouldn’t a couple, gay and married, seek a representative with focus on public works and public pensions like Social Security, and not have to also endorse opposing abortion or endorsing it?

    What has the country come to, one asks? How sad when our political choice is between party philosophies that include whether or not you approve of children playing tag, and whether or not you like rap or country music.

    Most of us want to vote for our primary interests – job, infrastructure, fair taxation, decent safety net for the needy, jobs that eventually allow us to retire before we die. We don’t want to join or endorse a party that requires a menu of accepted stances on personal morality and philosophical conclusions.

  10. Perplexed says:

    -“My readers know mine: it’s the result of the toxic, and uniquely American, cocktail of concentrated wealth and money in politics.”

    You have lots of company in this assessment! Welcome to life in Lesterland! All of which is what makes what Larry Lessig is trying to tell us so incredibly crucial. If we would all (or even just a lot of us) agree, as Larry very cogently argues both in his book, and here:

    that while this may not be the “most important issue,” it is the “first issue,” the issue that is a necessary condition of successfully resolving the most important issues. Our choice to ignore this, and it is a choice, may well be our most serious, and possibly fatal mistake. “A republic, if you can keep it” (Benjamin Franklin) was not just a description, it was a warning, a warning we have ignored at our peril and are now seeing the consequences of.

  11. Brian says:

    Until we move to a sytem that money profit is seriously abated I do agree with the economic message based in legislative and FDIC policies and procedures. Party affliation is null here. The facts are the facts especially concerning trade policies past and present.