With the hour of reckoning on Health Care at last behind us, it’s time to start shifting focus to the other great issue of the next election cycle: America’s credit rating. I’ve never been a big watcher of economic issues: the Clinton years hardly warranted it, and it was just one more tick on the list of things to hate about Bush. But now the combination of a liked (no longer loved) president and a still crappy economy begs a closer look at what exactly the analysts are talking about when they’re not watching the vicious cabaret of David Paterson’s self-destruction. And so I give you an initial, clumsy attempt to analyze what ails the national treasury.
The Reckoning aside, the cause of our fundamental economic problem, namely the Debt of Debts, remains twofold: we want things without paying for them, and our political leadership is only too happy to do so in exchange for votes. And while public consciousness of the problem has increased dramatically in the wake of the crisis, a solution remains politically impossible: the democrats are content to largely pretend the problem doesn’t exist while the GOP is willing to acknowledge it only so far as it benefits them politically. This is hardly the proper atmosphere for the development of a solution, as the shrieking din debate over healthcare amply demonstrates. The citizenry and the politicians have led one another into divorcing benefit from cost, and now attempts at a fix are viewed as unlikely at best, suicidal at worst. A number of proposals are actively being aired by the analytical class, ranging from the inestimable Fareed Zakaria‘s call for a value added tax and an end to homeowner subsidies, while on the other side of the political spectrum Republican congressman Paul Ryan has put forth a plan that basically advocates burning the welfare state to the ground and beginning anew.
So while it’s clear we have no shortage of ideas (not all of them bad) as to what to do about the problem, taking action is, as always, the source of the rub. Now, although this applies equally to both parties I’m going to use the GOP for this illustration as Ryan has more power with them than Zakaria does with the democrats. The GOP, despite having taken it upon itself to both uphold their declared principles of small government and responsible financing and thwart the democrats at every turn, seems bound and determined to ignore Ryan’s ideas almost entirely and continue riling the tea party by calling Obama and anyone who happens to agree with him a socialist (just as democrats accused anyone in the same room as bush a tyrannical lunatic) . Putting aside the many factual errors present in such an argument, it’s indicative of the extent to which the GOP has abandoned policy making in favor of gaining tea party votes by badmouthing the democrats. Given that the democrats did basically the same thing in 2006 with the moveon.org set, this is certainly a valid electoral strategy. As far as actually governing the country though it continues the trend of hyperpartisanship eroding the functioning of the government: nothing important can be accomplished if the minority party does nothing but firebombs the majority with the promise of being swept into power with the next election and their counterparts continue the cycle. A very excellent (and I will warn you now, somewhat lengthy, but I link to the most relevant portion) article from the Atlantic monthly describes the problem thusly: while American society, despite all appearances on cable news, is perfectly fine, the government is growing increasingly incapable of dealing with the problems it faces, especially ones that involve the nigh-inconceivable sums of money it now deals with. The reasons go back to the beginning of this passage: the GOP knows it can’t adopt anything ryan says despite how well it meshes with their stated platform because the political reality is that any party that messes with entitlements would be drawn and quartered. Even the Tea Party is enraged not by the existence of medicare but by the perceived attempt to reduce funding to it. Which is one of the truisms of voter behavior: people hate government bureaucracies, except the ones that benefit them.
So what solution can possibly emerge from all this? Like so many other things, it all depends on time and the ever shifting winds of politics. Unlike healthcare, there’s far more broad based support behind Wall Street regulation in the wake of the Reckoning, and following healthcare momentum is on the democrats’ side. For their own survival the GOP may decide to call of their hissy fit and actually work to give some input into legislation if only to be able to say they actually accomplished something resembling governance in November. As so often happens in American politics, we may yet do the right thing, if only for the wrong reasons.