The Republican Party has gone full-out on equating Democrats with Socialism. That, of course, is absurd. It is absurd not simply because it is so far from accurate but also because the entire distinction between “capitalism” and “socialism” is so dated as to have questionable relevance in today’s world. No serious analysis could call China a purely socialist country or the United States a purely capitalist country.
Just before the 2016 election, I was taking my then five-year old grandson home from swimming. As we drove through a residential neighborhood, he asked what was that sign in someone’s front yard. Then, before I could answer, he announced: “It has a flag on it. It must be for that bad man.” (Trump was, of course, the “bad man.”)
On the way home, I got a chance to look closer. It did indeed have an American flag motif, but it was hardly a Trump poster.
What struck me was that a five-year old had picked up the idea that American flags were emblems of the right. Although this sharpened my appreciation for how much five-year olds pick up, it left me feeling something had gone very awry in the country where, growing up, I started every school day pledging allegiance to the flag of a country that promised “liberty and justice for all”.
In today’s political environment, there is a lot of discussion about thwarting the will of the majority or attempting to establish minority rule. This way of taking about it presumes a majority-minority scale where it is possible to determine particular spots on the spectrum. But the actual structure of American government, for better and worse, includes no such yardstick at the national level. There are a series of independent electoral processes which, historically, come enough together to form a national will in service of a shared national story. In that respect, it is more like a marriage—where two people decide to marry their way through life. Counting votes doesn’t really matter; the issue is whether there is will to proceed and flexibility to accommodate each other’s particular issues.
When the differences over the issues become too large, when every discussion turns into rancor, the will to continue wains and suitcases are packed.
In my last post, I suggested that government will always have difficulties being efficient because it is trying to serve many ends, not of all of which are easily compatible. I then, rashly, as it turns out, suggested this post would include some suggestions that could mitigate the difficulties of implementation in government.
It’s not that there couldn’t be improvements. The problem is that it is hard to imagine how to implement the things that would improve implementation.
At the moment, it seems Michael Lewis is everywhere, pitching his new book, Premonition. His general theme is that, in addition to whatever specific depredations the Trump administration committed, there were deep government failures that made the pandemic response worse. The specific culprit in his book was the CDC, which made multiple errors and missed critical signals. Lewis sees this more as an example of how American government is subject to functional failures at critical points than a singular failing.
This touches a nerve. I believe in government, especially as compared to the limits of private enterprise. Government does a lot of things very well—and fairly. Medicare hums, airplanes zip around the country without smashing into each other, and we take clean water for granted.
Okay. This doesn’t sound like the usual stuff I write about. But it got my attention because it Is such a technicolor illustration of how much more difficult real policy is than policy theatre, in large part because things in the real world turn out to be very interconnected. The topic also begins to raise some necessary questions about what kind of global institutions we might need for the future of the species.
Several weeks ago, a headline in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention: “What the world needs now is more humans.” My antennae went up. It was so counter my basic belief, I was compelled to read it.
I was not even a little convinced. But it raised enough questions about the future to be interesting.
Let’s start with a few basic facts. You probably know world population has been on an exponential growth curve for some time. But have you really stopped to examine that curve? World population has increased since 1900 almost five-fold, from 1.65B to 7.7B. Even with few other facts, this should cause at least an eye-brow raise. It’s hard to imagine systems that can have five-fold flexibility without getting into trouble.
The media is awash with stories about the border crisis, specifically the surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States at its southern border. For the most part they have been fairly good in reporting the humanitarian toll of the crisis and also putting it in the context of larger immigrations trends, in this case the acceleration of a surge that actually started a year ago, while Trump was still president.
However, the media has been slower to point out that most of the political responses, on all sides, are a form of Kabuki theatre. In truth, there really aren’t any good solutions in the short term. Things that might have been “solutions” are 25 years in the rear-view mirror. Which is the point of this post: big problems require solutions that are big—not simply in terms of dollars but in terms of time. Some things simply require elapsed time to get accomplished. You can’t change the amount of time required for a pregnancy by adding more resources.
The current border situation is a technicolor reminder that things can get very ugly if society tries to ignore its way out of problems, particularly those that take time to solve.
The American Rescue Plan is law. Very good. But what now? It passed with zero Republican votes and we have shot our Budget Reconciliation bullet for the time being. Given lack of Republican interest in engaging, do Democrats just spend the rest of the year making speeches about policies that aren’t going to happen. Faced with Republican opposition to whatever is proposed, do we just roll over?
I was initially wary of attacking the filibuster on the grounds it would even further deepen the divide. But the reality is that even if a substantial majority of the population supports them, action on voting rights, immigration or climate will be impossible under current Senate rules. Our choice is to eliminate the filibuster or give up on moving political conversations from culture wars back to policies. Capitulate or get rid of the filibuster. The latter, on reflection, I have come to see as not only necessary politics, but good policy as well.
Despite winning the presidential election and controlling both houses of Congress, the short term for Democrats is worrisome. The margin in both houses of Congress is thin, incumbent parties don’t usually do well in mid-terms, and Republicans have many structural advantages.