Over at Fabius Maximus, there is an on-going discussion about “Reigniting the Spirit of America.” I find this an interesting discussion, and one I’d like to both highlight and contribute to. In this post, I’d like to make a few framing comments, and propose at least one concrete suggestion.
The Nature of the Problem
It is easy to overstate the problems facing the United States. Certainly, our public debate seems coarse, but that has also occurred in the past. And certainly, our political system seems gridlocked and unable to deal with pressing public policy issues, but again, I am not sure that there is anything new here. Yes, we have a powerful “know nothing” movement today, but the very term demonstrates that this too is not a new dynamic. So, what, if anything, is new?
I actually don’t know for sure. It is very hard to get perspective on one’s own time. And yet, I can’t help but think that we are facing a set of national challenges that combined together create a perfect storm that threatens the very core of our political system.
First, I think it is safe to say that our nation’s fiscal picture is as bad as it has been at any time since at least the last decades of the 18th Century. We’re going into debt at a frightening rate, and instead of thinking about ways of slowing the train, the debate in Washington is about whether it is better to borrow another $2 trillion for tax cuts, or whether to borrow an addition $4 trillion. The disconnect between what is widely recognized as a problem and our responses is what is frightening. We’re rushing toward national insolvency not by accident, but with our eyes wide open.
Second, we’ve begun to translate anti-elitism from an admirable pro-democratic posture toward an actual operationalized government of the mediocre. Look, I’m not crazy about Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale-trained Bill Clinton pretending to be Bubba, nor am I crazy about Yale and Harvard-trained George W. Bush playing cowboy. But I think the impulse is okay in the sense that it reflects an antipathy to aristocratic pretensions of a “ruling class.” But saying that the “ruling class” ought to remain grounded is not quite the same thing as saying that intelligence, merit, and achievement are not positive attributes in a national leader. And yet, I think we’re looking at an emerging generation of leaders — particularly on the Republican side of the aisle — who are not just making a welcome nod toward democratic values, but who are indeed just low-rent mediocrities. One can oppose “elitism” while recognizing that elites are still important. But I think that distinction is evaporating.
Third, we’re failing to invest in the future. Our infrastructure is coming apart. You see this in particular in the older cities of the Northeast, but the problems will spread as infrastructure ages elsewhere. We’re falling behind other nations on a long list of infrasture issues. Our road network is overtaxed and in many cities simply inadequate. Our rail links are laughably poor. We don’t have a national power grid. We have worse and slower internet access than many of our competitors. Recall that American power was largely built on the back of massive infrastructure investment — railroads, canals, pipeline, telegraph lines. For roughly 100 years from the 1850s to the 1950s, the United States was a global leader in infrastructure development. Now, we consistently underfund these key elements of national power.
In short, we’re bankrupting ourselves, increasingly giving power to mediocrities, and failing to invest in the future.
Causes of the Problems
I think most of our problems are caused by (a) pathologies on the right, and (b) weakness on the left. Let me explain both.
First, something has gone horribly wrong in the “conservative” movement. It has embraced what is essentially “magical realist” view of the world, where tax cuts increase government revenue (of course, they don’t), where freedom means that government can disappear people but can’t regulate against shady business practices, where white Christians are considered an oppressed group, etc. I mean, we’ve gotten to the point where right-wingers don’t engage in occasional exaggerations, but instead are acting on the basis of a worldview that is almost wholly informed by misinformation.
The pathologies on the right are a function of several dynamics. But here are a few: (1) Well-funded and very effective Astroturf campaigns. It isn’t just the Koch brothers. Before that you had Richard Mellon Scaife and his campaign against Bill Clinton. You have Rupert Murdoch. You had the handful of families who created the anti-“Death Tax” movement in the 1990s. The rich have gotten richer, and they want to keep their money. (2) These Astroturf groups have a built in army of foot soldiers coming out of the “home school” movement. When historians write of the decline of the United States at the beginning of the 21st Century, I am confident they will identify that rapid growth of the home schooling movement in the 1990s and 2000s as a major cause. It is creating millions of undereducated fanatics who are fully committed to a right-wing magical realist world view. (3) The perverse, but brilliant, embrace of the “government doesn’t work” mantra, which is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophesy. When in power, conservatives are incompetent proving that “government does not work.” When not in power, conservatives are obstructionist proving that “government does not work.” It is an obscene approach, but it is also very effective in getting into power.
Second, Democrats are, for lack of a better word, cowards. Instead of standing and fighting, Democrats are continually triangulating, trying to coopt pieces of the right-wing agenda, and generally running-scared. Now, part of that is a desire to create distance from the hard-left. I get that. But the Democratic party has gone from staging an occasional Sister Souljah moment to turning that into a permanent posture. Democrats are so frightened of being considered liberals or progressives that essentially engage in pre-emptive surrender. And what does that get you? Obama passes a moderate health care bill very similar to Mitt Romney’s and he gets accused of being a Socialist. It is like 1984: Having acknowledged that their greatest fear is being called leftists, the Democrats have ensured this tactic is used against them. I really have no idea how to get the Dems to change. They probably need a brutal electoral drubbing or two to rebuild some discipline in the movement. But really, I have no idea what to do to make the Democrats stop behaving like a bunch of wimps.
An Initial Solution
The federal government is going to need to spend more in the future. That is a simple fact. Both Republicans and Democrats are on record opposing Medicare cuts. That alone will drive spending upward. As a nation, we need to spend more on infrastructure. This provides jobs in the short-run, and creates the foundation of economic growth in the future. In order to pay our bills and invest in the future, we need a more robust tax base.
I don’t know how to give Democrats a spine implant, but I do have an idea about how to defang some of the pathologies on the right. As much as I hate to say it, I think we need to revisit the issue of progressive taxation. Belief in progressive taxation has been a core part of the liberal platform for generations. But we’re now at the point where the costs of this policy are outweighing the benefits. The rich have gotten so rich in the United States, and American politics have become so vulnerable to well-funded interest groups, that resistance to progressive taxation among the wealthy is becoming a serious impediment to the formulation of rational policies.
But imagine if we were to move to a “Fair Tax” or flat tax scheme. You wouldn’t get rid of all the super-rich meddlers, but certainly, you could get rid of a lot of them. They would become a random nuissance rather than a systematically distorting factor in our policy debates. Given new Supreme Court rulings on money in politics, progressive taxation is probably doomed in the long-run.
This may seem like a step backward, but actually, it is a way of getting ahead of the curve. Otherwise, we’re likely to see a generation worth of national priorities buried under constant tussling over marginal tax rates at different income levels.
Our political system is being crippled by a potent, and angry, coalition of the greedy, religious fanatics, and the credulous. As long as the greedy can continue bankroll this log-rolled coalition we’re never going to be able to address national priorities in a reasonable manner. But, given modern media segmentation, the idea of a populist movement to split the plutocrats from their ground troops is unlikely. As long as conservatives get all their information from Fox and right-wing blogs, an economic populist message is never going to split the conservative coalition.
And given recent Court decisions and the power of money, getting money out of politics is a losing battle. The rich are now so rich that it is irrational to assume that public financing of elections or restrictions on spending in elections can hold back the tide. So the key has to be to mitigate the consequences of the potential effect of money. Ending progressive taxation is the only structural way I can see to address this issue.
A Starting Point
This of course is not a strategy for a national renew. What it is, I think, is a first step in creating structural conditions where we even have a hope of dealing with our national challenges. I’ll follow-up on this post with additional thoughs of my own and in response to comments from readers.