The Globe and Mail
June 17, 2011
Francis Fukuyama, at the end of his latest remarkable book, The Origins of Political Order , offers this aside about his own country, the United States. “The United States seems increasingly caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, wherein everyone agrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues, but powerful interest groups can block the spending cuts or tax increases necessary to close the gap. The design of the country’s institutions, with strong checks and balances, makes a solution harder,” he writes.
In The New York Times, the moderate conservative columnist David Brooks writes of the forthcoming presidential election, “the core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed – unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.”
Note that Mr. Fukuyama, the academic, and Mr. Brooks, the journalist, both use the same word to describe their country’s politics: dysfunctional. When those outside the U.S. use that word, however, they are merely borrowing for explanatory purposes a description thoughtful American commentators use so frequently that it has become a cliché.
Cliché or not, U.S. politics is stalemated, but the country’s fiscal problems are not. Instead, they grow worse – appreciably worse – with every passing month. Yet, it has become common coin that nothing serious can be done, or will be done, until after the next presidential election – or several trillion dollars of debt from now.
The U.S. is plagued, Mr. Brooks argues, with a range of deep structural challenges but seems to lack the appetite or capacity to discuss these challenges, let alone do much about them. Instead, U.S. politics is characterized by shouting, slogans and large doses of sheer nonsense.
The other night, those who have declared their candidacies for the Republican presidential nomination appeared together for a “debate,” the first of the marathon. What a collection of third-raters they were for a major national party: fringe characters (Ron Paul and Herman Cain), dullards (Tim Pawlenty), social conservative ideologues (Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann), egotists (Newt Gingrich, whose campaign staff just quit en masse over his eccentricities).
The possible exception to this list of the politically challenged might have been former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But even he, the supposed front-runner in this race among the Republican lame, has drunk the Kool-Aid that the answer to what ails the U.S. is still-lower taxes. As Mr. Brooks says of that approach, it “is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible, and politically impressible.”
Mr. Brooks is correct, of course, but the Republicans have taken flight from the reality that the deficit must be – indeed, can only be – confronted by a mixture of tax increases and spending reductions. This is what two bipartisan commissions recommended, but their advice has been completely spurned. The Republicans’ answer to everything is lower taxes, and massive cuts to discretionary spending which amounts to only a small share of total government spending. Democrats are not much better, trying to preserve as much spending as possible and refusing to seriously examine broad-based tax increases on the middle-class.
What the U.S. does to itself is that country’s business, but the profligacy of the world’s largest economy influences the fortunes of other countries. No country is more exposed to the uncertainties flowing from U.S. profligacy than Canada, because no country is more dependent on that country’s market and currency.
If another country had conducted its affairs in such a shoddy fashion, it would have been punished by economic forces that swirl around the world and prey upon the weak. As it is, the U.S. escapes the full brunt of its own bad governance and dysfunctional politics by remaining the custodian of the world’s reserve currency.
Part of dysfunctional politics is the flight to the past, as if in the original Constitution, or the battle of Lexington, the solutions reside to the complexities of today. It is one thing to be proud of the past, and to draw lessons from it; it is another to flee into the past to escape serious discussion of the problems of today and, more tellingly, tomorrow.
What that flight does is reaffirm the old adage that for every complicated set of problems, there is always one simple solution that is invariably wrong.