Whether you read the Times or the Wall Street Journal, informed consensus has it that this country is in trouble. Our monster deficit increasingly undercuts economic growth, while our mounting foreign debts threaten to make us grad students at the table of nations, disregarded except when we’re subjected to lectures on the importance of industry. We need to stop spending money, stat, but at the same time we’ve got an economy in shambles, an infrastructure wearing through and at least two major cities (Detroit, New Orleans) half abandoned. Oh yeah—we’ve also embarked on two land wars in Asia. In this time of crisis, with a new president who rode to office as the explicit champion of American hope, we have opted to spend the past year arguing heatedly about the particulars of a health care reform package that we never passed. In the meantime, we managed to degrade our discourse to the point where the ruling party is regularly compared to Nazis, the president is accused of not being an American citizen, and even routine political appointments are ransomed for congressional pork, at least until somebody gets caught. At our time of crisortunity, when we were faced with the chance and the obligation to remake America for the twenty-first century, we as a nation have boldly stepped forward onto our own dicks, then fallen into the cat box. Which raises an interesting political question: What the fuck is our problem?
New York Times columnists and morning zoo DJs agree that it’s probably Congress. While I sympathize with the Republican complaint that every time they stand up for their principles they are called obstructionists, I can’t help but notice that principle has compelled them to stand up against virtually every major legislative initiative of the last year. Paul Krugman argues that the Senate’s procedural emphasis on unanimous consent has given individual cranks too many opportunities to hold government hostage to their own agendas. Historically, the possibility of endless filibusters and refusals of cloture has been forestalled by the Senate’s essential comity and spirit of cooperation, but 2009 will not be remembered as The Year of Comity and Cooperation. The question Krugman fails to consider is, what happened? Why are the rules that have governed an orderly Senate for generations suddenly inadequate to ensure that someone gets put in charge of buying cleaning supplies for the Capitol building?
Krugman comes closest when he notes that Republican legislators have lately refused to support even measures that follow their own principles, as in their recent refusal to consider cost-saving negotiations within Medicare, or their blanket opposition to cap-and-trade—a market solution if ever there was one. “With the national GOP having abdicated any responsibility for making things work,” Krugman argues, “it’s only natural that individual senators should feel free to take the nation hostage until they get their pet projects funded.” He’s half-right: the national Republican strategy is muddled and contradictory, when evidence of its existence surfaces at all. But the problem isn’t that this inability to think seriously about real problems has fostered an every-man-for-himself attitude on Capital Hill. The problem is that it so accurately reflects the will of the American people.
Fact #1: In 2009, 59% of Americans supported President Obama’s $800 billion economic stimulus package. Fact #2: The same year, 59% of Americans said that the stimulus package called for too much government spending, and 52% said it unacceptably expanded federal power. At the mathematical minimum number of hypocrites dictated by the confluence of these two numbers, 9% of Americans consciously support the stimulus package and oppose paying for it. It seems possible that the overlap between the two positions is bigger than that. Just after Obama’s election, 60% of Americans said it was “critical or very important” that the new president pass tougher laws to regulate banks and mortgage companies. Last week, 57% said that they were worried about too much government regulation. Again, it’s possible that 60% of the country completely changed its position on financial regulatory reform in the space of a year. It’s also possible that the majority of Americans don’t understand the issue at all, or even grasp the concept of exclusive choice.
That’s the contention of Jacob Weisberg over at Slate, who argues that the American people labor under a mentality that insists on A) eating this piece of cake and B) continuing to have this piece of cake. They understand basic terms related to government and economics, but they don’t really know how those elements might go together. As a result, the most popular demands of the American people are often downright contradictory. We want the government to do something about health care and foreclosures, but we also want to cut spending. We protest in the streets for lower taxes, which would necessarily reduce revenue, while our other hand holds a sign demanding a balanced budget. We want the government to fix the economy while reducing its size. And we don’t really understand the ramifications of any of these actions. Last month, a CNN poll found that 67% of Americans favor balancing the federal budget immediately, despite the fact that we’re currently in two wars and a recession.
If we put it to a popular vote tomorrow, the American people would overwhelmingly choose to pursue a course of action that experts agree would cause economic collapse and hyperinflation. This is why we have elected officials, who have presumably studied things like macroeconomics and constitutional law, so that the rest of us can focus on not burning the flag and making sure gay dudes don’t kiss each other. Still, it raises the third important question of this blog post, along with “What the fuck is our problem?” and “What happened?” If our elected officials are chosen in order to ensure that we don’t break America through our refusal to read any of the instructions, but also to somehow enact the will of the people, on what basis should they govern?
The will of the American people is demonstrably contradictory and probably stupid. That being said, the every-politician-for-himself approach to governance is worse, as proven by Dick Shelby and the last year’s vociferous inaction. The solution seems to be government by discourse: for the large minority of Americans who actually understand things like political economy and logical reasoning to exert undue influence on the machinery of state by talking about it, a lot. That’s easy to say, but the fact of the matter is that such discourse is made possible by the American tradition of free speech, which also encourages the stupid to participate in important discussions as loudly as possible.
With that in mind, I am going to propose what I believe to be a panacea for all of America’s problems: we must return to pointing out how stupid everyone is. When that dude at the bar says that what this country needs is lower taxes and a balanced budget, we must stand up and say that those two things are mutually exclusive. There is a tradition of comity that once prevented fistfights in this country, but it has come to work against us. They’ve abandoned it on Capitol Hill, at roughly the same time they abandoned responsibility and hard choices. Those of us who have to live in this country rather than simply run it don’t have that luxury; we will be forced to make hard choices whether the rest of those polled want us to or not, and those choices will get harder the longer we pretend they don’t exist. We’re going to make sacrifices, and I say the first thing we should sacrifice is our indulgence of stupid opinions. The alternative is to let them rule, and we see how well that’s been going.