Our problems don’t begin and end with government

April 19th, 2013

April 19, 2013

In their criticism of my April 15 op-ed, Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas Mann advised me to stick to economics. I’d suggest they spend some time outside Washington.

My column argued that our nation’s problems lie less with the political process than with lack of a broader vision for solving profoundly difficult problems such as rising inequality and global climate change.

These are issues of judgment. A decade from now, it is likely that either my position will be vindicated by some combination of the passage of significant legislation, a significantly improved economy and a reduced budget deficit relative to income, or that a decade of vicious and unproductive squabbling and further deterioration of the economy and budget will have borne out Ornstein and Mann’s concerns. We cannot know for sure, but I am happy to wager on the side of optimism.

As suggested by the examples I cited of energy development and growing acceptance of gay marriage, much progress is possible in America without legislation. For all our problems, Ornstein and Mann do not hold out the governmental system of any other country as superior to ours. And while they did note that our system is “designed not to act with dispatch,” they did not acknowledge that its checks and balances have at times prevented our system from making serious errors.

Like many who think that solutions to our problems lie in government process, Ornstein and Mann focus on the filibuster and its misuse. There may well be a case for reform here. But it is striking to note that the budget process, in which the filibuster has been taken off the table by reconciliation, is the area most often cited to prove our system’s dysfunction.

I certainly would have preferred that aspects of the 2009 Recovery Act, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank were different. So would every other participant in the process. I cannot see how Ornstein and Mann can know that the bills would have been better had they received Republican support. By my lights, they might have gotten worse – if, for example, the Recovery Act had included even more tax-cutting.

Declines in trust have been observed around the industrial world and with respect to almost all institutions. Economic problems are pervasive. It would be odd if the right explanation for these phenomena were entirely tied to U.S. political institutions.