To reflect on the process that led to the reunification of Germany I got out some newspapers and magazines from a year ago. They make very instructive reading today. What they tell you is that so far as international relations are concerned it is as if we had been bodily lifted and put down in another world. Mandela in prison, Noriega rebuffing a coup, Honecker trying to stanch the flow of East German refugees, Ortega & Co. cockily doing their thing -- that's where we were and where, as I recall, we assumed we were pretty much going to be forever. What those papers and magazines also tell you, however, is that so far as domestic fiscal policy is concerned, nothing has changed at all, except possibly to get worse, and the assumption of being stuck in the same place forever may have something to it. The headlines from the period -- "Panel Delays Debate on Gains Cut" -- have a hideous eternal feeling to them. Will we be reading them from the other side of the grave? Is that what hell is going to be like?

This is the first thing that strikes me about Washington's current budget struggle: perhaps it will turn out to be the one truly immutable aspect of our universe. The second is how totally preposterous it is. We are not just the richest country on earth, we are the richest country in history. Maybe it gets better than this, but it hasn't so far. And yet we still can't manage to provide properly for our poor -- let alone to decisively change their condition -- or to rebuild our collapsing bridges or clean up our air or find a suitable way to dispose of our trash. Daily we are reminded of our wealth and might: 200,000 troops suddenly transported to the Middle East and a formidable arsenal of advanced military technology put in place there; dazzling new photos of Saturn accomplished even with a partially defective telescope hurled by giant rockets into space; and what must look to people in most other parts of the world like an unimaginable degree of material comfort enjoyed by working people here. At the same time we are being instructed on the jobs and services to be cut if a Gramm-Rudman "sequestration" occurs: air-traffic controllers required to maintain flight schedules, certain U.S. marshals and Justice Department prosecutors, Agriculture Department meat and fowl inspectors at slaughterhouses and packing plants ... etc. Are we kidding? Are we crazy?

Yes to both of the above, at least in some key respects. It is the case that beneath the political skirmishing in Washington there is a real argument over deficit reduction, both the means and the end itself. But the true believers on either side of it are far fewer than you would suppose from watching the fight on nightly TV. Far and away the majority are people with political predispositions to one side or the other, an awareness of the flaws in their own side's argument and a disinclination to alter their position to take account of those flaws because -- and here we reach the nub -- their lobbies and political financiers and constituents won't let them.

It is the ancient push/pull of Washington politics. Your average elected politician will tell folks in Washington, not for attribution, that he knows this or that is a foolish and costly position. But, he will add, the pressure from home or according to the polls or from the organized opponents is horrific and there is nothing he can do about it. He will then go out and not just do the bidding of these lobbyists and constituents whose wisdom he secretly disputes, but will fire them up further with a whole lot of phonyola oratory about how they are right and he's not going to let them down or let those leeches in Washington take advantage of them and so forth and so on. He does everything in his considerable power to reinforce their opinions and inflame their resentments before catching the red-eye back to Washington where he can complain in peace over a drink and dinner about the yahoos "out there" who understand so little and who are putting such heat on him.

Yuck, if that is the way you spell it. This awful circle of mutual incitement is what makes me so pessimistic about the ultimate outcome of the budget dispute, whatever patched-up resolution may now be achieved. There is much indignation on the part of the people who worked so hard in the past few weeks to reach the agreement that was rejected; they believe they did the best they could, that their compromise deserved acceptance, that its defeat was bad news. I accept each part of that proposition -- all but the indignation. Instead of being indignant, they should have been chagrined. For there is hardly a one among them who does not have to shoulder some responsibility for the defeat he found so painful.

The Republicans in the White House and some (though not all) of them on the Hill have spent a decade telling Americans they could have it all, practically for free. Vast numbers of Democrats in Congress have been telling the same Americans essentially the same thing: that they could have ample public services and benefits and cheap energy if only the very rich and the Defense Department were made to pay and/or cut back. Both parties were, in this sense, propounding or, if they weren't propounding, at least tolerating Mickey Mouse economic doctrine. Such doctrine had, as it was meant to have, great and deep appeal and it also created a pool of political diehards in Washington who were above being swayed. Now we hear complaints that this circumstance the parties created could not be overcome with a snap of the fingers when their leaders decided it was time to back off.

In addition, there was the truly weird environment in which the original deal was made. Probably you could call it a disgrace that we have reached a point where our government can only try to do its most urgent business at five minutes to execution time and by absenting itself from its administration buildings and congressional halls and from its ordinary procedures as well. It has to hide out in some guarded place, itself artificially sequestered and subjected to college-final-type pressures. But more than a disgrace, this seems to me a depressingly fit symbol. It says that our government concedes it is no longer able to function properly as a government, that in its own environment it cannot and will not do what it knows it must. The economic news is bad. In a way, the news from government is worse.