Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Our Government As Dysfunctional As It Appears? Can It Recover?

Two articles have recently appeared that provide insight into our manner of governing ourselves. Each was generated by a need to figure out if our nation was coming totally unglued, or was this just another saga in a long tale. Both highlight an aspect of our governance that we often overlook, and together they leave us with a bit more optimism about the future than might currently seem justified.

David Runciman provides a British perspective in a wonderful article in the London Review of Books with the engaging title: How Can It Work? He begins by reminding us that in the eyes of the world our country was always viewed as an implausible contrivance.

"American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you really do politics like this, with such fractured and chaotic popular input? It seemed unlikely anything so ramshackle could last long. It was also implausible, especially to British eyes, for the simple reason that it was so clearly fraudulent: slavery made a mockery of it."

Runciman grants that the US has generated the successes that would normally be associated with a successful form of government, but suggests that its politics is too complicated to ever be able to understand, and thus one can never feel comfortable about its future.

"This is a system of politics that has held its ground under all manner of unpropitious conditions. It has been stress-tested almost to death. So does it work? You’d think we would know by now. But we don’t know. In a recent essay in the LRB (3 January), John Lanchester said the simplest summary of the state of knowledge in macroeconomics is ‘nobody knows anything.’ The same is true of macro-politics. In micro-politics, as in microeconomics, we are drowning in knowledge. The minutiae of the inner workings of American democracy are better understood than they have ever been, not least because many thousands of academics make a decent living studying them. But on the big question of whether it really makes sense to keep doing politics like this we don’t know."

Runciman, as do so many others, accords Tocqueville the prize for producing the greatest insight into how the US system actually functions. Tocqueville toured the country in 1831 as a young man.

"He got off the boat in New York, and like many first-time visitors was overwhelmed by what he found. His first impression was that it was a mess: stupid, chaotic, haphazard, impatient, relentless. He didn’t see how it could possibly work."

However, during his travels he concluded that the frenetic activity that surrounded him was deceptive in that it suggested it was incoherent and aimless. He described an overlaying opacity that shielded one from a view of activities occurring in depth.

"Tocqueville said of American democracy that more goes wrong, but more gets done as well, which means nothing bad lasts for long. Or as he put it elsewhere: more fires get started, but more fires get put out."

"He spotted the irony that it’s the openness of democracy that produces the opacity, because the excess of surface activity makes it hard to know what’s really going on....In a vibrant democracy the dissent, the noise, the anger, the incompetence are all readily apparent, yet out of this, over time, come stability and progress."

R. Shep Melnick provides insight into the process by which order seems to occasionally emerge from what is an apparently disorderly system. His article, The Gridlock Illusion, appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

Our system of government was designed to make legislating difficult.

"Our unusually complex structure of government—one that combines separation of powers, bicameralism, and federalism—not only embeds numerous ‘veto points’ in the legislative process, but frustrates accountability by making it nearly impossible for voters to know whom to blame or reward for public policy."

Melnick addresses the "opacity" that Tocqueville referred to in arguing that the congressional contentions and discord at the national level block from our view the full suite of actions and legislative experiments being performed at other levels.

"The stalemate/gridlock argument is misleading not only because it ignores so many accomplishments, but also because it focuses so intently on just one small part of domestic policy, namely passage of major pieces of legislation at the national level. Lost in this picture are the daily decisions of administrators, judges, and state and local officials, as well as members of Congress engaged in the quotidian business of passing appropriations, reauthorizations, and budget reconciliation bills. Taken individually, these decisions might seem like small potatoes, but collectively they can produce significant policy change."

"Critics of the Constitution overlook the fact that by creating multiple ‘veto points,’ our political system simultaneously creates multiple points of access for policy entrepreneurs and claimants. Every ‘veto point’ that can be used to block action is also an ‘opportunity point’ that can be used to initiate or augment government activity."

For examples of how incremental activities can lead to broad policy positions he describes how a combination of court rulings, state and local legislation, and interactions between state, local and federal agencies can create policies and programs.

"How did affirmative action—highly unpopular with the American public—become embedded in so many federal programs? Slowly, subtly, and at times surreptitiously, a long series of court decisions, agency rules, and complex legislative provisions injected the presumption of proportional representation into federal civil rights programs. How did the federal government come to set national standards for state mental institutions, schools for the developmentally disabled, nursing homes, and prisons? Largely through litigation and consent decrees negotiated by the Department of Justice."

"To take another example, how did Congress manage to pass controversial legislation guaranteeing every disabled student a ‘free appropriate public education,’ complete with an ‘individualized education plan,’ provision of ‘related services,’ and a promise that each student would be placed in the ‘least restrictive environment’? The answer is that the courts acted first, suggesting (rather obliquely) that students with disabilities might have a constitutional right to an adequate education. This forced state governments to spend much more on special education, which led them to demand that the federal government provide the money needed to comply with this federal mandate, which led Congress to provide both more money and more federal regulation, which led to more litigation and more federal requirements, which led to state demands for even more money, and so on. This is a vivid illustration of how separation of powers and federalism can produce not gridlock, but a game of institutional leapfrog that results in a steady expansion of government programs."

Although the federal government has not been able to produce any legislation that is directed at the carbon management problem associated with global warming, that does not mean that no progress is being made.

"But state governments have acted. Nine northeastern states reached an accord promising to reduce power plant emissions by 10 percent by 2020. In 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an agreement to curb global warming by capping certain emissions, declaring, ‘California will not wait for our federal government to take strong action on global warming’."

"More important, the Supreme Court has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. In response, the EPA has issued new rules that limit carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources. This is just the beginning of its regulatory efforts. Given the structure of the Clean Air Act, it is unlikely that this will be a particularly effective or efficient form of regulation. But the worse the EPA proposal, the stronger the incentives for congressional action. After all, if Congress fails to act, the EPA’s flawed plan will go into effect."

Melnick’s discussion provides insight into how government policy has evolved in the past, and it explains why we can have some hope that progress will continue to be made in the future. But the past is not prologue to the future. And that brings us back to Runciman’s concern for our country.

While Melnick has provided some substance to Tocqueville’s claim that there is more going on than is apparent, it does not allow one to conclude that order will necessarily emerge from chaos when necessary. This belief that "things are not as bad as they seem" implies a faith in the workings of our democracy. This leads Runciman to pose a question.

"This is the dilemma facing American democracy now: how can anyone know how bad things are, given that they are rarely as bad as they seem?"

Faith alone does not guarantee salvation.

"The problem is knowing how much to take on trust at those moments when things really do seem to be going badly. The opacity of democratic life makes it tempting to think the most important thing is not to overreact. If you lose faith during the rocky times, there is a risk you will stifle the restless adaptability that enables the system to correct itself over time. But of course there is also the risk that this time things really are as bad as they look – that something has gone fundamentally wrong – and if you keep waiting, you will end up standing by as the ship goes down."

Runciman points out that the historical record actually provides little comfort.

"But it is too easy to suggest that, when the time is right, this flexible democracy will seize its moment to act decisively. The waiting is likely to get in the way of the seizing. Moreover, history suggests that the time will only be right when things have gone very badly wrong. Those golden moments many Americans and outsiders look to as examples of democracy at its best were also moments when it had just been at its worst: Lincoln could not have been Lincoln without the Civil War; FDR could not have been FDR without the Great Depression; LBJ couldn’t have got his civil rights programme through Congress without the assassination of JFK."

He suggests that more recent history may suggest a country that has grown more complacent and less resilient.

"The oil crisis of the 1970s wasn’t in the end bad enough to shake the faith, though it came close. The recent financial crisis wasn’t bad enough to engineer a fundamental rethink, at least not yet; the financial system, run by people who learned the lesson from past crises, has managed to patch itself together, for now. So what would it take? Another civil war? Another depression, with a quarter of the country unemployed and a third of output lost? Another assassination, taking place against a backdrop of seething racial discontent? Could present-day America really cope with any of these?"

Runciman does not claim to know the answer to that question, and he warns us to not believe that anyone else knows.

"Behind these questions lurks the basic reason we don’t know anything: history provides no sort of guide. There is, in fact, nothing to go on. America is still a fantastically rich, prosperous, dynamic society. Its military remains unmatched, its universities the envy of the world, its culture voraciously consumed, its currency the bedrock of global finance. We don’t know what happens when such a society goes into decline because it has never happened before."

While faith cannot be depended upon; despair definitely provides no help. We will just have to persevere and keep trying.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged