11 March 2011

The politics of American decline

This week's Time magazine cover-featured a point-counterpoint on the proposition that America is in serious decline. Arguing the affirmative is Fareed Zakaria, a CNN talking head and center-right pundit. Zakaria is a naturalized American citizen who has argued in the past that the rule of law is a higher priority than democracy for developing or post-authoritarian nations. For Time, he explains that by choosing to become an American he's a true believer in American ideals, but at the same time doesn't accept American institutions as God-given, perfect or unalterable. This becomes relevant as he focuses on the American political system as a major factor in the country's economic decline.

Zakaria believes that fiscal retrenchment is necessary, but warns against cuts to those investments in infrastructure, education and innovation he considers essential to reversing American decline. He fears, however, that American politics is biased against the future and long-term planning.

[W]hy are we tackling our economic problems in a manner that is shortsighted and wrong-footed? Because it is politically easy. The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them. (And that's precisely why they're not where the money is. The American political system is actually quite efficient. It distributes the big bucks to popular programs and powerful special interests.)....It's not that our democracy doesn't work; it's that it works only too well. American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents' interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future. There are no lobbying groups for the next generation of industries, only for those companies that are here now with cash to spend. There are no special-interest groups for our children's economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now. The whole system is geared to preserve current subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes. That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it
spends on those under 18. And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board. That is a terrible sign of a society's priorities and outlook

While this suggests a flaw in the American approach to democracy, Zakaria also cites cultural and historical factors handicapping the country today. He suggests that Americans have grown complacent over their superiority while the economy and bureaucracy have grown "sclerotic" during decades without any apparent need to adapt. Contributing to the complacency and sclerosis is a stubborn but perhaps not peculiarly American chauvinism infecting all political factions.

Any politician who dares suggest that the U.S. can learn from — let alone copy — other countries is likely to be denounced instantly. If someone points out that Europe gets better health care at half the cost, that's dangerously socialist thinking. If a business leader notes that tax rates in much of the industrialized world are lower and that there are far fewer loopholes than in the U.S., he is brushed aside as trying to impoverish American workers. If a commentator says — correctly — that social mobility from one generation to the next is greater in many European nations than in the U.S., he is laughed at. Yet several studies, the most recent from the OECD last year, have found that the average American has a much lower chance of moving out of his parents' income bracket than do people in places like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Canada.

Still, Zakaria hopes that political reform would allow the government to overcome the people's biases. "We have a political system that has become allergic to compromise and practical solutions," he writes, yet "At the very moment that our political system has broken down, one hears only encomiums to it, the Constitution and the perfect Republic that it created." It's too easy for small factions or even individuals to obstruct necessary measures, he complains, while the overlapping bureaucracies of city, county, state and nation inevitably cause waste. "We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future," he continues, "And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic."

Zakaria himself rushes to embrace the Founding Fathers, noting that they didn't hesitate to scrap the Articles of Confederation after they had been proved a botch in short order. As well, they studied foreign systems of government before drafting and ratifying the Constitution. In Zakaria's words, they "loved America, but they also understood that it was a work in progress, an unfinished enterprise that would constantly be in need of change, adjustment and repair." He comes close to saying that Americans today hold the Constitution in something like superstitious reverence. If that's so, it's because many of us consider it our only bulwark against the sort of arbitrary tyrannical power that would be adopted rashly the moment we abandoned the ancient charter. Whether you canonize the First or the Second Amendment, you're likely to fear that starting over would leave you without whatever protection of your preferred rights the sacred paper provides. Americans have come to believe that the Constitution's counter-majoritarian features are its most important elements, and that the U.S. is good only insofar as it protects minorities and individuals from the "tyranny of the majority." It's likely that many Americans unconsciously identify the Constitution exclusively with the Bill of Rights and those subsequent amendments that increased civil rights while forgetting that the object of the actual frame of government is, as Zakaria notes, a "more perfect union." Too many of us seem now to believe that the only objects of the Constitution are to protect minorities and preserve individual freedom. That belief leaves little room for national interests or purposes. Yet there must be ways to govern more efficiently in the national interest without the silencing of dissent that all Americans dread. People like Zakaria believe that a middle ground is possible. If it isn't, further decline is probably certain, and with it even more suppression of dissent and other rights.

Epilogue: Arguing against the proposition is David von Drehle in an article that could probably have been written by software without human editing. Proposition the first: Americans have been whining about national decline since approximately 1790; that proves that American will never actually decline! Proposition the second: American workers are still more productive than anyone! Never mind that superior individual productivity's side-effect is individual redundancy and systemic underemployment, or that it benefits bosses more than employees. Proposition the third: Americans are just more creative than anybody else, so we're sure to figure something out. Proposition the fourth: Don't begrudge other nation's successes! They're just living the American Dream, whether you are or not. The funny thing is, Zakaria warns us about just this sort of thoughtless optimism in his longer, stronger article. It makes you wonder why Time bothered publishing Drehle's drivel.

No comments: