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Reversing America’s decline: good luck with that

Richard Shelby exemplifies the status quo. (Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News)

Richard Shelby exemplifies the status quo. (Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News)

Sorry for the short absence .  I was petrified with indecision about whether to use Google’s Buzz, or Twitter.

(Actually, I wasn’t, but it’s a damn convenient excuse, eh?)

Let me call your attention to the best two essays I’ve read over the past several week.  Both assert that the United States government is somehow broken, and both claim that if the status quo prevails, the US is going to suffer.  First, this piece by James Fallows in the Atlantic:

America still has the means to address nearly any of its structural weaknesses. Yes, the problems are intellectually and politically complicated: energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. But they are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years, and today no other country comes close to the United States in having the surplus money, technology, and attention to apply to the tasks. (China? Remember, most people there still live on subsistence farms.) First with Iraq and now with Afghanistan, the U.S. has in the past decade committed $1 trillion to the cause of entirely remaking a society. We know that such an investment could happen here—but we also know that it won’t. That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.

Second, this essay by Lawrence Lessig in the Nation:

We can’t just putter along anymore. Our government is, as Paul Krugman put it, “ominously dysfunctional” just at a time when the world desperately needs at least competence. Global warming, pandemic disease, a crashing world economy: these are not problems we can leave to a litter of distracted souls. We are at one of those rare but critical moments when a nation must remake itself, to restore its government to its high ideals and to the potential of its people. Think of the brilliance of almost any bit of the private sector–from Hollywood, to Silicon Valley, to MIT, to the arts in New York or Nashville–and imagine a government that reflected just a fraction of that excellence. We cannot afford any less anymore.

Both Fallows and Lessig argue that the federal government ought to be doing a whole lot more than it is, but that the chances of that happening are nearly nil.  I tend to agree with them.  The one fact that liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on is that the status quo is unsustainable.  Health care costs will eventually have to stop their inexorable rise.  Defense spending will eventually run up against limits, and the loss of middle-class jobs cannot continue indefinitely.  The federal government’s current policies are driving each of these trends, and without a change in federal policy, each of them will continue until some crisis puts an end to them.  Probably it will be a very messy end.

Even if you reject the liberal notion that Fallows and Lessig seem to share about the great potential upside of a federal government that works well,  you’ll still want the feds to STOP much of what they’re doing right now, in order to avoid future crises.  The status quo isn’t good for liberals or for conservatives, provided that you have some interest in the long term vitality of the country.  But none of the current political parties seem able or willing to change course, and as Lessig argues, the Obama administration has abandoned any pretense of trying to change the way government works.

So, let’s agree that we need change.  Neither author has any ideas that give me much hope.  Fallows rejects the idea of a coup and a constitutional convention, and settles instead for “muddling through.”  This amounts to saying “let’s wait for the crises and hope we survive them.”  Lessig is less fatalistic; he suggests that we amend the Constitution to provide for citizen-funded elections and to ban members of Congress from any lobbying for seven years after their terms:

No doubt constitutional amendments are politically impossible–just as wresting a republic from the grip of a monarchy, or abolishing slavery or segregation, or electing Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama was “politically impossible.” But conventional minds are always wrong about pivot moments in a nation’s history. Obama promised this was such a moment. The past year may prove that he let it slip from his hand.

For this, democracy pivots. It will either spin to restore integrity or it will spin further out of control. Whether it will is no longer a choice. Our only choice is how.

I doubt this will happen, but I’d be thrilled to have my conventional mind proven wrong.

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