On December 19, 2015 The New York Times ran an opinion piece by Kevin Baker entitled Political Party Meltdown, which put perspective and a smidgen of clarity to the opaque and toxic swamp that is our Congress. I urge you to read his insightful essay now. Then have a look at the exchange between my friend Dan Wallace and Kevin Baker. Whatever comes up for you in reviewing the words of these smart and informed guys, put them in the Comments section below. Help us all to learn even more. And perhaps the frustration we feel over our dysfunctional and often non-functional government just might abate just a bit.
Dan Wallace wrote:
Kevin – I loved your essay in the NYT, and I had a thought/question on which I’d love your opinion.
I worked for a moderate Republican senator in the early 80’s (about when I think the shift from 4 “parties” to 2 really started – the Reaganites were very intolerant of anyone to their left). I left Capitol Hill believing that the Founders had intentionally designed the institutions of the Federal government, and especially Congress, to require lots of horse trading because that would ensure that resources were apportioned reasonably fairly over time. It seems to me that it worked beautifully as long as resources were growing, which is all the Founders could have imagined they would do, but that it stopped working around 1975, which is the last year the US ran a trade surplus and therefore, I would argue, marks the point at which the US actually became intrinsically non-competitive in the global economy. Our political institutions simply have no capacity to take things away from people, which is really what they’ve needed to do for 40 years, and so they have behaved in a very distorted fashion. The main form of distortion has been to paper over our lack of competitiveness with massive deficit spending. “Conservatives” (and remember, my instincts are those of a moderate Republican, not a liberal Democrat) don’t like to remember this, but the deficit spending was kicked off in earnest by Reagan. We were running deficits of $50-60 billion/year until the tax cuts passed, at which point they jumped to about $350 billion/year, which is pretty much where they’ve stayed ever since, except for ’98-99 surpluses, and 2008-present, when they’ve been closer to $1 trillion/year. And the latter, I think, can be seen as simply one piece of reckoning for the can having been kicked down the road by institutions (not just people) who intrinsically don’t have the capability to do anything else.
The discourse certainly was much more civil in 1983 than it is now, but my experience tells me that Congress was no better at actually solving a difficult problem then than it is now. It just failed at lower volume.
That’s my 30,000-foot view of how this has played out. I would be REALLY interested to know where you agree and disagree.
Kevin Baker’s reply:
Thanks for reading—and writing. You make some interesting points. Just some quick reactions to them:
—While I’m hardly an expert on them, I’m not sure that the Founders, for all their virtues, really did foresee a lot of constructive horse trading. They never seemed that at home with a party system; I sometimes [think] they envisioned high-minded debates in which the overwhelming logic and beauty of their arguments swept all away. When that situation failed to materialize, they turned immediately to scandal sheets and pistols.
—I don’t think I’d agree that our institutions are incapable of taking things away from people. I think Americans have a generally good record of sacrifice in times of war, and I would say that decades of generally stagnant incomes mean that many people have had a lot taken away from them. For that matter, the minimum wage still is not the equivalent of what it was in 1968, and didn’t the famous Reagan-O’Neill deal on “entitlements” entail a payroll tax increase on the vast majority of Americans?
—Did the trade deficit really mean we were inherently unable—or less able—to compete in the world economy?
I would question that. I think the increased competition with the likes of Japan and Western Europe then was generally a good thing, which forced our companies and workers to get better.
But competing with a host of other nations, all over the world, that employed such tactics as using child labor, outlawing unions, banning civil liberties, and erecting tariff barriers? I think that was, and is, crazy—and also, as I’m sure you know, very much an anomaly in our history.
William McKinley, for instance, would never have contemplated the idea that Americans should have competed against, say, labor from Italy in his time, much less from China. But now, for some reason, both parties generally embrace it.
—Beyond that, I’d say our economy, and our society, both have deeper structural problems. My thoughts on this are far from original, but in general I would say that these include doing much too little to support wages for the 70 percent of the population who still do not get a bachelor’s degree; shifting more and more of the tax burden onto the working and middle classes; and so structuring tax codes and financial regulations [such] that, more and more, the best minds of our nation are lured into the mere manipulation of money.
I don’t think most people aren’t sacrificing enough. Instead, they are in overdrive: scrambling to work 2-3 jobs, working desperately to send their kids to private schools and universities that charge ungodly amounts of money, and at the same time trying to take care of aged parents who now live longer than ever, with less and less capacity.
It’s a big reason why, I think, the establishment narrative from both parties—work hard, obey the rules, get an education, and you’ll be fine—seems increasingly absurd to them.
Anyway, nice corresponding with you. Just out of curiosity, which Republican did you work for? Many in my family were Rockefeller Republicans, and I’ve always had a certain admiration for old Rocky.
All the best,
Ed. note: There is much in America that needs fixing and we are on a path to continually fail to make things better. It is my goal to make a difference – perhaps to be a catalyst for things to get better. That is the reason for these posts. To accomplish the goal requires reaching many thousands of people and a robust dialogue.
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Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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