Lawrence Summers, a professor and past president at Harvard University, was Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and economic adviser to President Obama from 2009 through 2010.
With the release of the president’s budget, Washington again has descended into partisan squabbling. There is pervasive concern in the United States about the basic functioning of democracy. Congress is viewed less favorably than ever, and revulsion runs deep at political figures seemingly unable to reach agreement on measures to reduce future budget deficits. Pundits and politicians alike condemn “gridlock.” Angry movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the tea party are active on the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum.
Meanwhile, profound changes are redefining the global order. Emerging economies, led by China, are converging toward the West. Beyond the current economic downturn lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies, which may increase average productivity but which also displace large numbers of workers. The combination of an aging population and the rising costs of health care and education will put pressure on future budgets.
Anyone who has worked in a political position in Washington has had ample experience with great frustration. Almost everyone in U.S. politics feels that much is essential yet infeasible in the current environment. Many yearn for a return to an imagined era when centrists in both parties negotiated bipartisan compromises that moved the country forward. Yet fears about the functioning of the federal government have been a recurring feature of the political landscape since Patrick Henry’s assertion in 1788 that the spirit of the revolution had been lost.
It is sobering to contrast today’s concern about political paralysis with that which gripped Washington during the early 1960s. Then, the prevailing diagnosis was that a lack of cohesive and responsible parties for voters to choose from precluded clear mandates necessary for decisive action. While a flurry of legislation passed in 1964 to 1966 after a Democratic electoral landslide, Vietnam and Watergate followed, all leading to President Jimmy Carter’s declaration of a crisis of the national spirit. Despite today’s rose-tinted view, there was hardly high rapport in Washington during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
In American history, division and slow change has been the norm rather than the exception. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing.
There were probably too few checks and balances as the United States entered the Vietnam and Iraq wars. There should have been more checks and balances in place before the huge tax cuts of 1981, 2001 and 2003, or to avert the many unfunded entitlement expansions of the past few decades. Most experts would agree that it is a good thing that politics thwarted the effort to establish a guaranteed annual income in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the effort to establish a “single-payer” health-care system during the 1970s.
The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that progress comes from legislation, and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While people think the nation is gripped by gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years: Washington moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such an episode has done in the past generation. Through all the fractiousness, enough change has taken place that, without further policy action, the ratio of debt to gross domestic product is expected to decline for the next five years. Beyond that, the outlook depends largely on health-care costs, but their growth has slowed to the rate of GDP growth for three years now, the first such slowdown in nearly half a century. At last, universal health care has been passed and is being implemented. Within a decade, it is likely that the United States no longer will be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. For the first time, most schools and teachers are being evaluated on objective metrics of performance. Same-sex marriage has become widely accepted.
No comparable list can be put forth for Japan or countries in Western Europe. Yes, change comes rapidly to some authoritarian societies in Asia, but it may not endure, and it may not always be for the better.
Anyone prone to pessimism about the United States would do well to ponder the alarm with which it viewed the Soviet Union after the launch of the Sputnik satellite or Japan’s economic rise in the 1980s and the early 1990s. One of America’s greatest strengths is its ability to defy its own prophecies of doom.
None of this is to say that the United States does not face huge challenges. But these are not because of structural obstacles. They are about finding solutions to problems such as rising income inequality and climate change — issues for which we do not quite know the way forward. These are not problems of gridlock but of vision.
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