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Can We Save This Village?

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Obviously, the path of least political resistance would be doing nothing. But insofar as the Obama administration has committed itself to moving major pieces of legislation, I think there's something to Arnold Kling's criticism that it has have adopted a substantively problematic "path of least resistance" approach.

On the other hand, you can say that taking the path of least resistance has left the administration with enough resistance to potentially kill health reform, cap-and-trade, and financial regulation. The least possible resistance, in other words, may still be enough to overwhelm the political system's insanely poor tolerance for resistance. We have a political system that most observers can confidently predict will be completely unable to avert the fiscal or the climate crisis. That's like a police force that can't respond to emergency calls, or a fire department unable to put out fires.

I think that analytically honest political commentators right now should be struggling with a pretty hard choice: Do you try to maximize the possibility of good, if still insufficient, outcomes? Or do you admit what many people already know and say that our political process has gone into total system failure and the overriding priority is building the long-term case for structural reform of America's lawmaking process? Put another way, can you really solve any of our policy problems until you solve our fundamental political problem? And don't think about it in terms of when your team is in power. Think of it in terms of the next 30 years, and the challenges we face.


Photo credit: Tim Sloan of AFP/Getty Images.


By Ezra Klein  |  June 26, 2009; 3:47 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Next: I'm Having a Pessimistic Day

Comments

There are many reforms that are needed but far and way the most destructive is the filibuster. It will be the death of our democracy.

Governing is about tough choices and as long as a small minority can prevent choices being made it will undue the whole system.

Posted by: JonWa | June 26, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

"Do you try to maximize the possibility of good, if still insufficient, outcomes? Or do you admit what many people already know and say that our political process has gone into total system failure and the overriding priority is building the long-term case for structural reform of America's lawmaking process?"

Obviously, that's a very hard question. Perhaps you have to know more than the question offers on the surface. One predecessor question is:

Is a solid foundation and correct direction being established for further action? Medicare did this in 1965, and it has lived, been modified mostly in the right direction, and presents no signs of being anything less than a solution that lasted and will last far longer.

Without a very solid public option with built-in review dates for potential expansion, I'd say that the current milquetoast proposals don't seem to be foundational and right-directional. A purely private health insurance system will fail to do what it must and at a cost that is affordable for decades to come. That seems clear.

On the other hand, wishing for some major change in the political system is just a wish without a promise. I see no reform proposals for the political morass that are adequate to the job, nor the will to find some solutions to the obvious deficiencies - wish need not be detailed here.

So, is it a camel with a nose into the tent, or a grizzly bear's paws to be soon followed by an angry, ravenous beast that wrecks the camp and kills the campers?

Camels can be nasty too, of course, but I want assurance it really is a camel rather than a grizzly.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 26, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster needs to go.

And you need publicly funded campaigns.

Fix those two things and you're 90% of the way there.

Posted by: SteveCA1 | June 26, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the mystifying things about the Obama administration. He clearly has the instincts of a "process" reformer, a so-called goo-goo, but rather than follow that line he's focused on incremental policy reforms - which are getting chewed up by a process that he knows is broken. I'm doubtful that his effort to change the heuristics of lawmaking is going to amount to any meaningful long-term change without process reforms as well.

Posted by: valeskoi | June 26, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse


You know what could be a possibility? When HIPAA was passed in '96 they sort of punted on privacy and said that Congress had 3 years to pass privacy legislation and, if Congress didn't get it done, the Secretary of HHS would write it. And that's what happened in '99.

What if the more contentious pieces of health reform are put off in a bet AGAINST congress's ability reach consensus, and, therefore, the public plan or other pieces are built however Sebelius says to build them?

That'd be rad, I think.

Posted by: ThomasEN | June 26, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I hate to be a total pessimist, but nothing will change without campaign finance reform. I used to lobby on agriculture issues, and there is nothing quite as depressing as getting faxes day after day for "events" where the price of admission is the $500 (and up) for a PAC. I can meet with staffers all day, but the real business is done at the fundraisers.
Walking out of a meeting after begging a staffer to do something that actually serves the public good only to see the Monsanto lobbyist in the waiting with twenty checks in his pocket doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Posted by: sideshow1979 | June 26, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is the mainstream media gives credibility to a failed ideology. There are no good ideas to fix things on the right, yet they still dominate the discussion.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | June 26, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I think what Obama owes us is honesty. He may get beaten in Congress, but then he should at least be willing to tell us he got beaten, and who did it, instead of trying to spin defeat as victory, and shielding the perpetrators from accountability.

The first big defeat for Obama was inability to get cramdown through Congress. I didn't think it would be possible, but we bailed out the bankers in full, and then let the homeowners out to dry. And that defeat will have big consequences in the future, as the foreclosure crisis is about to blow up for the second time. But instead of acknowledging defeat, and helping us to see where the bodies are buried, and how they might be avenged, Obama seems to be trying to pretend that it never happened.

I think Obama will do a lot of good in this term and terms to come. The changed policies on minimizing killing in Afghanistan is *really* promising and heartening, though we have to see what happens in the next few months. There's no shame in getting half a loaf. The problem is in trying to spin half a loaf as a full one.

Posted by: roublen | June 26, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

that is pretty pessimistic ezra, but correct to a point. occasionally we will surprise ourselves in this country and do the right thing but only after we have exhausted all the wrong things first....

still maintaining a wry sarcastic sort of optimism though. we will be ok if we don't lose our sense of humor.

on a local note though, a local montana reporter's recording of max baucus does give me pause if max is the right guy for this huge job of health care reform. http://mtlowdown.blogspot.com/2009/06/baucus-not-happy-with-interview.html

Posted by: problembear | June 26, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra writes:

I think that analytically honest political commentators right now should be struggling with a pretty hard choice:...

Well, I like to think of myself as an "analyitically honest political commentator, " and the choice I'm making is between firewood for the winter and a new pair of glasses, after I pay the electric bill. Health insurance? Not even an option. We all have "hard choices" to make, don't we?

Posted by: lambert_strether | June 26, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Ezra:
"our political process has gone into total system failure and the overriding priority is building the long-term case for structural reform of America's lawmaking process"

I'm confused -- are you saying that a slight majority should be able to do whatever it wants? I'm thinking you wouldn't have felt that way five years ago, Ez.

JonWa:
"Governing is about tough choices and as long as a small minority can prevent choices being made it will undue the whole system."

In fact, governing is about restricting freedoms, and unless there's a check or a balance somewhere it will undue the whole Constitution.

PoliticalPragmatist:
"There are no good ideas to fix things on the right, yet they still dominate the discussion."

Even worse -- Not only don't they want to fix things, but the right refuses to even acknowledge that everything is broken. How can they be so calm when the sky is clearly falling all around us?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | June 27, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Many people say we must have campaign finance reform, when it seems to me we need to essentially eliminate all the so-called reforms we have put in place over the past thirty years.

Sherman Antitrust, SS, medicare, the civil rights acts, the EPA, and all manner of "progressive" stuff has passed during the bad old days. Perhaps we need to admit that current reforms have done nothing more than force politicians into an arms race that serves the lobbyists who can provide lists of potential donors. Its a lot easier to keep track of a handful of sugar daddies than the current morass.

Posted by: jammerjim | June 27, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Many good points made above, but none get to the real root of the problem. Ever since corporations received the protection of the 14th Amendment in the decades after the Civil War, they have progressively begun to assume an ever-bigger role within our political process. Corporations spend billions to manipulate our politics through both direct contributions to politicians and through intensive public relations efforts that keep voters misinformed regarding their illegal and unethical actions.

Until we amend the Constitution to place reasonable restrictions on the rights of corporations, then all of this will continue. After all, the disparate needs of the public good are no match for the focused ability of giant corporations to put pressure on our leadership.

Posted by: Publius2k | June 27, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

What if the firemen wanted to burn down the house?
Remember what Grover Norquist said...now they can drown the govt. in the bathtub no?
Ask yourself if you really wanted to do that how would you go about it.
We are living it.

Posted by: truthynesslover | June 27, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

What if the firemen wanted to burn down the house?
Remember what Grover Norquist said...now they can drown the govt. in the bathtub no?
Ask yourself if you really wanted to do that how would you go about it.
We are living it.

Posted by: truthynesslover | June 27, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, have you yourself correctly identified the problems we face in the US? What's your confidence level in the schedule of priorities that you have laid out. How about the schedule that the new administration has laid out?

In 2012, how will this administration's massive new devotion to cars look, when gasoline hits 10 dollars a gallon and the carbon and climate legislation starts making its way into the economy? Do you think the Obama administration might have made a mistake to attack the power-generation grid first as the source of our emissions problem, while at the same time investing in cars, car companies, roads, and biofuels (for the cars)?

Simply put, since January 20th what is the actual weighting of new or proposed investment in public transport vs new investment in automobile infrastructure?

The policy failures now are not merely on a large scale. They are on a massive scale

Posted by: cowyard | June 27, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I am Canadian and after academically studying and watching your politics for 40 years, I think I have come to the conclusion that your system of government cannot work in modern times. Separation of the executive from the legislative branch and the ability of individual members of congress to vote independently irrespective of party policy dooms and chance of government reform Instead, lobbyists are making public policy decisions through their ability to influence individual members of congress. That reality favours the status quo and precludes reforms in areas such as health care or climate change. The advantage of the Parliamentary system (which has some of its own weaknesses) is that the executive controls the legislature (fully in the case of a majority) and can make public policy without external pressure from lobbyists etc. Legislation which may be unpopular but necessary (ie GST) gets passed. Time to rethink your system

Posted by: jgj6001 | June 27, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

“We have a political system that most observers can confidently predict will be completely unable to avert the fiscal or the climate crisis. That's like a police force that can't respond to emergency calls, or a fire department unable to put out fires.”

This, on examination, is simply wrong. Our political system is quite good at responding to actual crises. If anything, we tend to overreact to crises. The current economic crisis is a case in point. It appears that a depression has been averted through concerted action, and what we are left with is a lingering recession that it seems quite within our capacity to deal with. It's possible we even overreacted, but in this case, better safe than sorry. As for global warming, this isn't a crisis at all – not yet, and not for decades to come, if at all. Despite the alarmist warnings, there is little sane, scientific reason to think that some terrible crisis will ever strike us due to man-made global warming. Thus, emergency action isn't even called for. Even health care reform, while necessary, is not a crisis. The system is not collapsing, it is merely inadequate. But it has always been inadequate, and it is not in danger of becoming more so. It's just getting more expensive, because health care is getting better, using more advanced technology which costs more and does more.

I'm all in favor of addressing all of these issues in a sane way, but it's just plain old propaganda to constantly say that every problem the country faces is a looming crisis that must be dealt with in emergency fashion or we are all doomed. This just ain't so, and pretending it is just makes it even more difficult to deal with the actual problems we have.

Posted by: conradg1 | June 27, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Given that our government is designed to foster a relatively weak party system, candidates for political office must appeal to the median voter to win elections. The median voter is generally disinterested unless he is personally affected by a particular issue because such a voter receives sufficent benefits from society. It usually takes a crisis large enough to personally affect the median voter (i.e., the financial meltdown of 2008 that impacted the 50% of Americans who have a stake in the stock market). Accordingly, our system of government responds to crisis. Herein lies the critical paradox: our system does respond to problems, but only in times of crisis.

That is to say that our system does work, just not prophylatically. There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions exist when the "stars are aligned." The stars are aligned when a party controls all the branches of government, as is the case today with Democrats in charge of both the legislative and executive branches. While the minority party still has access to some parlimentary manuevers to slow legislation, it is not strong enough to thwart legislation that unifies the party in power.

Applied to the pending healthcare debate, Republicans are not positioned to stop the Democrats since the cause of universal healthcare mostly unifies the Democratic party. Therefore, they are positioned to enact comprehensive reform.

Of course, one can point out that the Democrats are not perfectly unified on this issue, which in turn will produce less than ideal legislation. This may be true, especially since moderates (who must appeal to the median voter) hold the power on the outcome of this debate. Indeed, it will likely take future crises to fix whatever shortcomings healthcare reform may produce given that the Democrats are not in 100% agreement on how best to fix the system and given that the stars are not likely to be aligned in the future. But at least our system responds to crisis, if not problems (that inevitably become crises).

The point is that the Democrats can have their cake and eat it too -- just not all at once. They are well positioned to enact good reform now because the "stars are aligned," and future crises will precipitate changes later.

In conclusion, it would behoove Democrats to seize the day on enacting universal healthcare -- however imperfect -- rather than seeking systemic polical reform that may one day produce a system of government where comprehensive reform can be more readily enacted.

Posted by: mikejd | June 27, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Democracy's fundamental flaw is that half of the voters have below-average intelligence. I am not proposing an IQ test for voters, but voter registration could require a minimal level of reading capability.

That may need an amendment, but so be it.
Otherwise, we are truly lost.

Posted by: 4Atrooper | June 27, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

I think the most major systemic problem for America is the absolute disintegration of "Journalism" into nothing but Public Relations hacks. It is next to impossible to get accurate, useful, SOLID INFORMATION in the news.

Take this writer, Ezra Klein, for instance. Blithly talks about "The Climate Crises"... If he would do a little research (ie, WORK) he would find out there is no Climate "Crises"... But nope, he'd sticking with the spoon-fed line of "Global Warming"...

This low level of integrity & honesty in so-called "journalists" will be the death of our Country long before the political process does us in.

Posted by: wilsan | June 27, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse

@SteveCA1

"The filibuster needs to go.

And you need publicly funded campaigns.

Fix those two things and you're 90% of the way there."

Work on killing the filibuster, because Obama himself killed campaign finance-reform last year when he refused to accept public money and effectively bought the White House (with whose money, we'll never know because his campaign operation won't submit itself to an audit...more of that glorious Obama transparency).

No politician in their right mind will ever accept public money again after watching Obama outspend McCain 10 to 1.

Posted by: DJK1 | June 28, 2009 12:29 AM | Report abuse

Who ARE you people? I wonder if you all were singing the "Get rid of the Filibuster" song, when the Jackass Party was using it on a DAILY BASIS? One thinks not. And who keeps bringing up 'Campaign Finance'? You mean, the Campaign Finance that the EMPTY SUIT with the BIG MOUTH, turned down, even after he SWORE he would accept it? THAT one? The PROBLEM, is that DIRTBAGS are running the show. The PROBLEM, is that you've got people out there, who are too STUPID, to see that these Politicians are KILLING this country, and LAUGHING all the way to the Bank. TERM LIMITS are the answer. Why is this so hard to understand? We have TERM LIMITS all over the place. STARTING, at the PRESIDENCY. We have outta control MEDICAL COSTS, because the TRIAL LAWYERS, have the DEMOCRATS right by the short hairs. And the DEMS wouldn't have it any other way. EVERYBODY knows, that TORT REFORM is the ONLY WAY to bring down costs. Just like, EVERYBODY knows, that the PUBLIC SCHOOLS are a DISASTER. But the TEACHERS UNIONS' MONEY, runs the show when it comes to educating our children. They keep their PIGS in CONGRESS-(DEMOCRATS)-well fed. And NOTHING gets done. Even a JERK, like this EZRA guy, oughta know that? Even someone as STUPID as EZRA, should realize, after a while, when he's being played for a FOOL. Just don't count on it. Idiot.

Posted by: GoomyGommy | June 28, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

A couple of observations:

First, as some posters have asserted, broken government is in the eye of the beholder. Conversation on the filibuster, which for the last eight years was hailed by progressives as one of the few barriers staving off the annilation of life as we know it and was so loathed by conservatives that it was almost eliminated - for judges anyway - has now flipped in the lexicon of good and bad political tools. Cracks me up.

Next, Ezra Klein's lament illustrates the view of an urban liberal who wants solutions that make sense to urban dwellers imposed on everybody. But solutions that work for folks living like rats in a maze don't necessarily work for those living in more isolated settings. The members of Congress, God bless their pointy little heads, represent both.

Posted by: katdancer | June 28, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Fixes? I can't believe no one has yet said term limits.

Term limits will eliminate career politicians, and free up members of the Legislature to make laws, not just constantly campaign.

Unfortunately, Term limits would be about as hard to get enacted as they would be beneficial to the system.

Posted by: drewconk | June 28, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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