David Brooks has an interesting take on the U.S. debt crises and our political inability to deal with it
. He cites this gridlock as a relatively new phenomenon, relating to a depleted level of moral anxiety in our politics.
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.
And the American constitution divides power so completely that big important action requires some humility on all sides, or else collaboration is impossible. All legislation becomes emergency legislation, too little, too late.
Great connection to the debt crisis, thanks for sharing Jason.ReplyDelete
I wonder how much the "mentality inherited from the founders" carried the seeds of the present ethos though. John Locke is credited with the "separation of powers" doctrine that informs US government. This is based on an ideal of equilibrium, but it also assumes that power organizes itself into factions that are only out for their own self interest. This attitude is incorporated into the system by making it very difficult for any one faction to achieve absolute power over the others... a prudent and cautious set-up, but one that also allows for ratcheting aggression and ruthlessness between opposing factions and the current norm of "emergency legislation." For cooperation to be possible at a useful level, it seems the toleration of factional..(ism?) in itself is the problem. Factions lose traction in the battle for power by admitting their own weaknesses, or even changing their minds (which SOMEbody has to do if there is a disagreement on important issues).
Yeah, I think the founders absolutely intended for rapid change to be very difficult, more difficult than it would be in a parliamentary system. In many ways this is a good thing because rapid change can leave a void, it doesn't give enough time for norms and rules to naturally adapt. But now it appears to leave the U.S. in a precarious position, not just on debt, but on energy, immigration, etc. I think Brooks is arguing that even in the highly factionalist U.S. system, we are seeing something unprecedented with the debt crises, something that never happened in the past. I don't know if he's right, if a 18-- or 19-- era government would have been able to deal with todays structural debt, but its an interesting point.
But I take your point about factionalism in and of itself being the problem. The Baha'i model of consultation is surely a better way to account for different points of view without resorting to a battle for self-interested power, and yet it is conservative enough that decisions are made cautiously and the implications are thoroughly considered.ReplyDelete
"Yeah, I think the founders absolutely intended for rapid change to be very difficult, more difficult than it would be in a parliamentary system. In many ways this is a good thing because rapid change can leave a void, it doesn't give enough time for norms and rules to naturally adapt."ReplyDelete
However, in some cases, rapid change may be necessary, and thus the lack of ability to do it when it is necessary may bring about disaster.
Consider "peak oil". The more we wait, and the longer the "change" takes, the worse will be the pain. Did you allude to this when you mentioned about energy?
It seems then, that the best system would be more flexible, capable of both slow and fast change, perhaps with the slower change being preferable, but still capable of fast change when that is necessary.
You asked: "Did you allude to this (peak oil) when you mentioned about energy?"
Yes. I meant everything related to energy, including oil depletion and its effect on prices, global warming, geopolitics, sustainability, etc. These are all areas that the U.S. political system is ill suited in tackling due to structural factionalism. I am afraid, that any real change in policy will only come during emergency, too little, too late.