America’s Broken Politics

Jeffrey Sachs says government is broken: 

America’s broken politics, by Jeff Sachs, Project Syndicate: …The difficulties that Barack Obama is having in passing his basic program, whether in healthcare, climate change, or financial reform, are hard to understand at first glance. After all, he is personally popular, and his Democratic party holds commanding majorities in both houses of Congress. Yet his agenda is stalled and the country’s ideological divisions grow deeper.

Among Democrats, Obama’s approval rating in early November was 84%, compared with just 18% among Republicans. … Only 18% of Democrats supported sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while 57% of Republicans supported a troop buildup. …

Part of the cause for these huge divergences … is that America is an increasingly polarized society. Political divisions have widened between the rich and poor, among ethnic groups (non-Hispanic whites versus African Americans and Hispanics), across religious affiliations, between native-born and immigrants, and along other social fault lines. American politics has become venomous as the belief has grown, especially on the vocal far right, that government policy is a “zero-sum” struggle between different social groups and politics.

Moreover, the political process itself is broken. The Senate now operates on an informal rule that opponents will try to kill a legislative proposal through a “filibuster”… To overcome a filibuster, the proposal’s supporters must muster 60 of 100 votes… This has proved impossible on controversial policies…

An equally deep crisis stems from the role of big money in politics. Backroom lobbying by powerful corporations now dominates policymaking… The biggest players, including Wall Street, the automobile companies, the healthcare industry, the armaments industry, and the real-estate sector, have done great damage to the US and world economy… Many observers regard the lobbying process as a kind of legalized corruption…

Finally, policy paralysis around the US federal budget may be playing the biggest role of all in America’s incipient governance crisis. The US public is rabidly opposed to paying higher taxes, yet the trend level of taxation (at about 18% of national income) is not sufficient to pay for the core functions of government. … Powerful resistance to higher taxes, coupled with a growing list of urgent unmet needs, has led to chronic under-performance by the US government and an increasingly dangerous level of … government debt. …

Obama so far seems unable to break this fiscal logjam. To win the 2008 election, he promised that he would not raise taxes on any household with income of less than $250,000 a year. That no-tax pledge, and the public attitudes that led Obama to make it, block reasonable policies. … America, in fact, needs a value-added tax,… but Obama himself staunchly ruled out that kind of tax increase during his election campaign.

These paralyzing factors could intensify in the years ahead. … A breakthrough will require a major change in direction. The US must leave Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby saving $150bn a year for other purposes and reducing the tensions caused by military occupation. The US will have to raise taxes in order to pay for new spending initiatives, especially in the areas of sustainable energy, climate change, education, and relief for the poor.

To avoid further polarization and paralysis of American politics, Obama must do more to ensure that Americans understand better the urgency of the changes… Only such changes – including lobbying reforms – can restore effective governance.

The opportunity cost of the spending on the war effort doesn’t receive enough attention — Democrats are still worried about the weak on defense label and that has allowed the right to dominate policy — so it’s nice to see the issue raised. But on another topic, I like the filibuster when George Bush is president (even though it wasn’t enough to stop all of the right’s damaging policies from being passed into law), but dislike it now (we did manage to get health care by the filibuster, but at what cost?). So, here’s a question: Is it time for the filibuster to be reformed or eliminated entirely, or does it provide a useful check on the political process? I find myself hesitant to get rid of it, but I can’t fully justify that position.

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Opinions and comments on RGE EconoMonitors do not necessarily reflect the views of Roubini Global Economics, LLC, which encourages a free-ranging debate among its own analysts and our EconoMonitor community. RGE takes no responsibility for verifying the accuracy of any opinions expressed by outside contributors. We encourage cross-linking but must insist that no forwarding, reprinting, republication or any other redistribution of RGE content is permissible without expressed consent of RGE.      


5 Responses to "America’s Broken Politics"

  1. Anonymous   November 25, 2009 at 8:41 am

    You are right to focus on the political problems, but your framing is not always very good.1.) You discuss the polarity which is true, but this does come only from the ‘far right’ in the States. There is also a virulent far left that has hyjacked the Democratic Party, where centrists like Joe Liebermann are now relics of the past. Did not David Broder recently write the Harry Reid is not Mike Mansfield? Well, how much of the American mainstream does a Nancy Pelosi represent?2. You criticize the filibuster rule in the Senate; but given the polarity, is not this needed more than ever? BHO promised post-partisan politics, but he is ruled in a very divisive and partisan fashion. Is his strategy of ramming healthcare through Congress wise on partisan basis? In what other country would let such a thing happen that will affect so many people without broad social consent? You taking very undemocratic positions!3.)I am the first to agree about the corporatism and cronyism that is the trademark of Beltway politics. This applies to both major parties because of the economics of US politics. Whilst BHO ran as a ‘reformer’, he scuttled the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and spend record amounts of money to get elected. This is the antithesis of how he was representing himself. BHO repeated the same technique of throwing big money in Virginia and NJ, but lost because voters were appalled at all the spending and fiscal problems in these States and the Beltway.4.) As an economist, you make grave errors about government spending and totally ignore the issue of unsustainable entitlements like existing heathcare programs. You mention a word about TARP and government socialization of losses. What about the long term consequences of high public debt, held in check by quantitative easing? On your part, this all very inexcusable.5.) It is true that most Americans do not want to pay higher taxes. If it is against the public will, should not politicians be obliged to respect this?6.) The matter of the wars is another issue that involves geopolitics. Looking backwards does not resolve the problems. The consequences of the US simply pulling the plug and leaving the locals to slaughter is not a good policy nor will it bring stability.All in all, I do not see this presidency doing very well. The opinion polls show that the American people are not happy with the performance in Washington.

  2. Anonymous   November 27, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I agree with much of the above especially the comments about the inexcusable mistakes for an economist. You think Americans are undertaxed and that has led to government “underperformance” !! What are you smoking? Maybe you should take a look at how Reagan led us out of recession in 1980s. He cut taxes in half and cut government spending, leading to the greatest peacetime growth cycle ever in American history. Government’s underperformance comes not from a lack of money, but from the fact that capitalism, the engine of all real growth, is fueled by the private sector. And you want a VAT tax. Yeah let’s tax consumption when consumer confidence and spending are so precarious it threatens our economic stabllity. Genius! And your other article about the recession being in our heads! That’s the most creative excuse for bad policy by BOH I have heard yet. What a tool