As you know, I’ve got disasters on the brain lately, from floods to tornadoes to oil spills to tsunamis to earthquakes, and I keep thinking about ways that we are increasingly, systemically vulnerable to things going badly for us. While reporting on the federal debt the other day, a thought-bubble appeared above my desk, hovering portentously, threatening to burst at any moment and drench me with notions that I hadn’t fully thought through. And the gist of the thought bubble was this: That the federal government is a fundamentally defective mechanism.
That there’s something out of kilter in the design. That you can’t get good decisions out of a system that is not engineered to produce them.
If true, kicking out the bums and sending Mr. Smith to Washington won’t solve our biggest problems.
I was thinking specifically of the fiscal issue. Although liberals and conservatives have very different ideas of where the source of the problem can be found, there’s a general consensus that we’re on an unsustainable fiscal path, that we’ve committed ourselves to spending more money than we’re willing to supply in tax revenue. Normally we could rely on economic growth to bail us out, except that, thanks to an aging population and rising health care costs, spending will outpace economic growth.
William Gale of Brookings summarized the problem when I talked to him last week:
“The entire social contract, regarding what individuals pay, what corporations pay, how we structure government spending…the collective set of assumptions that we’ve developed as a society are not sustainable.”
So I threw out the idea that maybe the system doesn’t work, that we’re always just a year or two away from the next election, and no one wants to absorb a short-term political cost even if it solves a long-term problem.
(Another example right now involves energy policy and climate change: It’s easier to talk about drilling more oil wells and how we need to lower the price of gasoline than it is to say we need to put a tax on carbon as a starting point in preventing potentially catastrophic climate change.)
Gale disagreed: He said that our system has actually managed, over the decades, to solve major problems, just rather slowly sometimes. He cited the civil rights movement as one that took many decades but ultimately proved triumphant.
“The great strength of the country is the democratic processes that underlie policial decision-making. But that stuff takes a long time to work its way through,” he said.
He added: “Fiscal policy is almost like an economic civil war. It’s precisely because it’s us against us that it’s a problem.”
Yeah: We need to decide, collectively, small-d democratically, what we want to do, what we believe, what we think is the correct social contract between generations, between workers and non-workers, between the rich and poor, between the federal government and the states, and so on.
It’s us against us.
(For the record, I’m rooting for us.)