Sunday, February 7, 2010

Haunted by Paralysis

A phenomenon is haunting the United States of America -- the phenomenon of paralysis.

Talk about a "job killer" (as chambers of commerce inevitably describe every bill that would increase regulation and/or reduce profit) -- this phenomenon is a potential "country killer," potentially devastating industry and its workers alike.

You think I'm exaggerating? No less a luminary that Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recognizes it. His New York Times column (1/29/10) concludes as follows: "So we're paralyzed in the face of mass unemployment and out-of-control health care costs...Blame our political culture, a culture that rewards hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than serious efforts to solve America's problems...I'm sorry to say this, but the state of the union -- not the speech, but the thing itself -- isn't looking very good."

Thomas Friedman (1/31/10) concludes much the same thing, decrying "forces of inertia and special interests" that are blocking the agenda of the President, elected with 68% of the electoral votes and 9.5 million more popular votes than his opponent. According to Friedman, the international community is now beginning to doubt the political stability of the United States. "If the two parties could...remove the growing sense that our country is politically paralyzed, you would not need another dime of stimulus money. Investment and lending would take off on their own. If, however, the two parties continue with their duel-to-the-death paralysis, no amount of stimulus will give us the sustained growth and employment we need."

Frank Rich, also writing for the New York Times (1/31/10), says "our union is not strong. It is paralyzed." He points out that historian Alan Brinkley claims we are entering "the fourth consecutive decade in which Congress -- and therefore government as a whole -- has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education."

OK, these guys might well be talking to each other. They all write columns for the same newspaper. But let's be adults and evaluate their claim on the merits.

Is paralysis -- assuming it exists -- always a problem? After all, the founding fathers designed a system of checks and balances specifically designed to prevent a few individuals from wielding excessive power and taking precipitous actions. State governments were cut from the same mold. So, if our nation is so close to achieving its objectives, on behalf of its citizens, that it has reached the point of diminishing marginal returns (that is, an enormous effort would be required to produce an extremely small improvement), then inaction would not be such a bad thing.

If, on the other hand, conditions are such that useful action can and should be taken to ameliorate them, then paralysis is unconscionable, wrong, and destructive to the way of life we claim to value (you know, the pursuit of happiness, the general welfare -- stuff like that).

Let's take health care as an example. The idea of a national system has been kicking around since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Presidents FDR, Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and now Obama have tried to enact something substantial; only Johnson (so far) succeeded -- with Medicare. (Some might say that George W. Bush succeeded, with the Medicare drug benefit, but it's unclear whether the primary beneficiaries are human beings or the drug companies.) The result of nearly 100 years of near-paralysis: wealthy insurance companies and millions of people without access to the benefits of modern medicine.

I guess, as usual, it comes down to perspective. If you are one of the "haves" and your ethical compass always points inward, seeing millions of people out of work is nothing more than an intellectual curiosity -- an economic statistic. Families are homeless, and children would be starving if not for the detested and denigrated minimalist safety net. Juveniles in detention are reasonably likely to be raped, either by guards or their fellow prisoners. (See recent article in the Los Angeles Times.) Kids in the child protective services system die, at least partially because the available resources can't deal with the demand. The educational system (with fortunate exceptions) churns out people who can barely write, much less think. Our physical infrastructure is crumbling. The deficit grows, while earmarks and programs that benefit individual districts and states (protected by politicians in both major parties) add billions of dollars in federal expenses every year. Many if not most state governments are broke. Oh, yawn. Who cares? Inaction preserves the status quo -- which isn't that bad, right?

I for one -- call me liberal if you must -- think we can do better. But political paralysis is standing in the way.


  1. Although I'm certainly no expert in this area, it seems that the current Senate rules are contributing to the paralysis hurting so many people. At least at my present level of knowledge, I don't believe the original intention was that virtually no business could be conducted in the Senate without at least 60 votes. Some of it is attitudes; it seems that Republicans can use the "reconcilliation" process a whole lot easier than the Democrats. Perhaps it will be regretted later if (& when?) the Republicans have the majority in the Senate, but the time for changing fillibuster rules may be here. When I get time, I'll learn more about how that can be done. Maybe someone will comment & give me a quick lesson about this. Marty

  2. I think the issue is that legislators don't want to vote for the healthcare bill...because it isn't popular. The individual mandate is incredibly unpopular, and much of the rest of it is only middlingly popular, due to cost. Most members of the House and Senate would lose votes by supporting it. So they obstruct. This is what you get in a democratic system. If the healthcare bill polled at 60%, it would be law already. But it polls at 30%, so it isn't law.

    Also, the individual mandate sucks. Not just because it isn't popular, but it's terribly regressive on its merits and makes poverty almost inescapable, due to implicit marginal tax rates. If you get a raise from 20,000 to 30,000 you will lose so much of that in the form of tax increases and subsidy losses that you may well be poorer at 30k a year than 20k.

  3. Peter, I'm sure there is some truth to your point about the impact of unpopularity in the current environment. However, Obama was elected by an overwhelming margin, with all informed voters knowing full well that one of his goals was to modify the healthcare delivery system. Over time, details and misinformation have in fact decreased a once-popular idea. BUT whatever happened to leadership? As scholars frequently point out, we don't have a "pure democracy"; we have a republic -- a "representative" democracy, in which (supposedly) elected leaders occasionally try to sway public opinion toward what is good for the country. But with public officials mostly concerned these days with the next election cycle, we're not seeing too much leadership.