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How long can you go without solving your problems?

A lot of people attach all sorts of happy adjectives to the word "pragmatic." There are pragmatic progressives and pragmatic idealists and assorted other pragmatists with a bounce in their step and a song on their lips. Not me. I'm a pragmatic pessimist. I think we're operating within a broken legislative system that's housed in startlingly polarized polity and served by an often counterproductive media. That forces all sorts of compromises people shouldn't have to make, and that this country really can't afford to make. Which is why I wish Tom Friedman had gone a bit further with this:

The more I listened to the Danish minister, Lene Espersen, the more I thought of my own country, where I’ve been told time and again by U.S. politicians that proposing even a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline taxes to make America more energy independent and to stimulate fuel efficiency is “off the table,” an act of sure political suicide.

Not in Denmark. So I asked the Danish minister: “Tell me, what planet are you people from?”

Espersen laughed. But I didn’t. How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things — whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit — are “off the table.” They’ve been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loud-mouth talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable and a citizenry that doesn’t even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.

At the end of the op-ed, the difference between Denmark and America gets ascribed, in large part, to Danish courage. I don't know enough about Denmark to say whether that's true. But the basic problem in America is not courage or cowardice, but systems that are no longer suited to the needs of the country. At this point, structural reform of the legislative system should, I think, be the main priority for people left, right, and center who want to see action on the problems facing the country. It's all well and good to try to get the best outcomes possible given the existing constraints. But if those outcomes aren't good enough, then at some point you have to turn your attention away from the problems and toward the constraints that are keeping you from solving them.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 23, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
 
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Comments

There are too many people profiting from the broken system to expect any support for effective change to address the problems facing the country. If a problem offers the potential for profit, the profiteers will resist a solution. Why cure a disease when you can make money by merely treating it?

Posted by: skitso | December 23, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you on the Thomas Friedman piece. His basic contention is correct: America needs to incentivize energy efficiency and the transition to clean renewable energy. That is a complete no-brainer. It saves money, creates jobs, enhances energy security and lessens the damages of climate change.

But those incentives most flow from the federal government. And the Senate is incapable of acting responsively. I believe that is primarily due to the undemocratic and unconstitutional use of the filibuster. Reform that and I think you will see Americans have a fair amount of courage as well.

Posted by: orteleus | December 23, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I think you're on to something serious at this time of the year. BTW the same lady minister Tom was asking q's is now going to be our next EU Commissioner for Climate Change and the rest in Brussels.

I'm 50s and 60s undergraduate from the Bay Area; moved to Stockholm 1962 for graduate work, and, ended up finishing with ph.d.

Had to go south to Copenhagen to listen to good progressive jass in 60s. The Danes are also great innovators in healthcare delivery system across boarders in EU. And, to follow your hobby, gaurmet cooking.
Fabulous restaurants and dancing halls - still - in Cph.

Danes are known in Sweden for their flair for goodlife. Of course, there is a great competition between the tribes across the Oresund.

Posted by: hariknaidu | December 23, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I've often thought of the expansion of executive power as a natural consequence of world where, as time went on, political and legislative demands required a more and more nimble government to get anything done. I then remember reading the First Man in Rome (historical fiction) which was ostensibly about the rise of Gius Marius and Cornelius Sulla (as well as the Caesars later). The plot largely covers politics and family activity particularly. But about half way through the book what you begin to recognize is that it is really about the Growing Pains that Rome went through as it expanded that required more from it's leaders and got it via the Consuls (whose power expended) and later the Caesars. It illustrated the inadequacies of the system to deal with Rome's problems (including legion-munching Germans).

Now I'm not suggesting further augmenting executive powers, but somethings got to change in the Congress. It's more and more looking like we're approaching an 'adapt or die' moment.

Posted by: MrLynne | December 23, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

You know, things really WERE different 30-40-50 years ago (I'm 67). There were still a great many unsolved problems left after the Depression and WWII, but at least there was a sense that they could be solved.

People talk about the effects of the attacks on authority in the '60s, but personally I ascribe what happened to the Reagan decade, when the Right and the Rich decided to make a fetish out of greed and decided to appropriate the hippie maxim "if it feels good, do it" for their own and the Boomers decided to opt for trendy consumerism over a more principled life. I'm not pretending to have been immune from any of this myself, btw.

In short, people all through society decided that any restraints on individuals, particularly consideration of others or the community, were a drag and got in the way of getting really rich, so theyt abandoned them. And then, as many have recently observed, the undeserving Rich adopted a Randian social darwinism to salve their bad consciences that has become depressingly widespread.

It is broken, badly so, and it is getting to the point where those with power cannot conceive of giving any of it up (just look at the opposition to the miniscule tax increases on the rich being proposed).

The most heartening thing is the voices of reasonableness and pragmatism from Generation X and some of the very late Boomers. Best of luck. I wish we had done a better job considering what we were given. At least many of us are still trying.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 23, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

However what's ailing the political culture in beltway is money: too much money! Can it be corrected? May be.

Just saw Charlie Rose's Episode III on our brain and its motor system. May be we could use some stem cell research funds to innovate a more responsive polity in beltway - motor nerve restructung/adjustment experiment.

Posted by: hariknaidu | December 23, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I know sometimes you forget to give even a token nod to this, but you should perhaps recall that not everyone in the US shares your -- and Friedman's -- fondness for command and control policies. What that means, in this case, is you think the system is 'broken' only because we do not all agree with your version of what is 'Optimal'.

Sure, I understand that you are Correct, and any contrary opinion is ipso facto Incorrect, but surely you should at least remember that we also have, for now, a right to think and speak.

Now, Friedman famously said this year that he preferred the Chinese political model (the advantages of a dictatorial ruling party). Are you saying that you are also clearly in that camp? Is your progressive wing of the Democratic party really going to be that open about their desires for political hegemony?

An alternative diagnosis of the current legislative condition is that, well, power corrupts. And as politicians get more deeply involved in the control of huge segments of the economy (autos, banks, health...), only a political naif would be surprised by the corruption that results. Are you a naif, Ezra, or just pretending?


Posted by: enoriverbend | December 23, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

You are too charitable with Tom Friedman, Ezra.

I am sick and tired of Tom's 'preaching to the choir' kind of punditry. He just keeps on writing in NYT about how America should tax the gasoline. But why does he not spend any intellectual efforts in searching why it does not happen in this country? Where is the 'political analysis' of systemic constraints of American system? Don't we need that if at all he wants some movement here? What about highlighting those who are putting good grass roots fights in that regard in this country? Otherwise, it all seems quite 'lazy' on Tom's part - every few weeks just praise some one and chide Americans that they do not tax gasoline as if that is magically going to introduce a bill in Congress. Has he not been doing this for past several years since Bush Presidency? What difference it has made?

Beyond a point, whole of those columns hardly as anything which can be terms add 'value'. Even Charles Krauthammer of WaPo (who I dislike totally) had quite a few constructive proposals in this regard. Tom Friedman is not even near that.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 23, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I believe Baby Bush also said something similar - that it would be so much easier to be president if he were a dictator!

Posted by: luko | December 23, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

It is hilarious to me when liberals lament that nothing gets done when 50% of the time it is liberals standing in the way of progress. Ted Kennedy stopped Nixon in his tracks when he tried to implement universal health care. By Ezra's logic, Ted Kennedy is single handedly responsible for the millions of deaths since then by the people with out health insurance. If you want to know why good ideas don't get implemented, look in the mirror.

Posted by: cummije5 | December 23, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I actually don't think the system is dysfunctional, I think the abuses heaped upon it are choking its functioning.

I don't mean to seem like splitting hairs. The two biggest points from his quote to me are the coalition of lobbyists and the despair of the electorate.

It's a logjam. It's already being noticed, and it'll show in even harsher relief as the stakes get higher, and failure to act costs us visibly more.

I don't see it as a courage thing. What we don't know yet is how to fix this. How do we overrule the corporate ownership of politics?

We can't change the structure of the system because that very ownership won't let us. We can't overthrow it because we're not suffering enough to be revolutionary yet.

We have to build around government inaction. The demonstration effect of sustainable enterprise might loosen that logjam over time.

It's our core problem, keep on it please.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 23, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"Ezra, I know sometimes you forget to give even a token nod to this, but you should perhaps recall that not everyone in the US shares your -- and Friedman's -- fondness for command and control policies. What that means, in this case, is you think the system is 'broken' only because we do not all agree with your version of what is 'Optimal'.

Sure, I understand that you are Correct, and any contrary opinion is ipso facto Incorrect, but surely you should at least remember that we also have, for now, a right to think and speak.

Now, Friedman famously said this year that he preferred the Chinese political model (the advantages of a dictatorial ruling party). Are you saying that you are also clearly in that camp? Is your progressive wing of the Democratic party really going to be that open about their desires for political hegemony?

An alternative diagnosis of the current legislative condition is that, well, power corrupts. And as politicians get more deeply involved in the control of huge segments of the economy (autos, banks, health...), only a political naif would be surprised by the corruption that results. Are you a naif, Ezra, or just pretending?"

This is the POTD in my book.

Posted by: kingstu01 | December 23, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

This discussion recalls Michael Tomasky's (http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11424) lament for Democrats -- or anyone -- to take up the torch of working for the common good, not just the interest of one particular segment of society. At this point, NO policy can be proposed without some faction howling that it will bring about the collapse of (take your pick) jobs, the American economy, or free society.

Posted by: kentropy | December 23, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

"A lot of people attach all sorts of happy adjectives to the word 'pragmatic.' There are pragmatic progressives and pragmatic idealists . . . . I'm a pragmatic pessimist."

"Pragmatic" *is* an adjective.

"Progressives", "idealists", and "pessimist" are all nouns.

But you were saying . . .?

Posted by: KevinTKeith | December 23, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the problem with our politics today is structural, or at least not entirely so. It's that we've drifted to a point where there's "us" and there's "the government," which creates the illusion that we're not responsible for our government or for national policies. Until we take responsibility, it will be hard to get anything done.

Politicians ask us "what do you want?" Instead, they should be asking "what are you willing to do?" For it is only in action that problems get solved. If people say they want a problem solved but most aren't willing to do anything about it, then what kind of result should most people expect? Yet we're never asked to do anything (or when we are, there's substantial push back); we just expect that if we elect the right people to Congress, they'll fix things without any effort on our part. And politicians are too willing to indulge this fantasy. It may be a way to win a few elections, but it's not a sustainable method of responsible governance.

Government is not "them"; it's "us," whether we like it or not. Government isn't the vehicle for solving our problems for us; it's the way we choose to solve our problems together, at least those that require collective action. "Government" doesn't tax us; it's the means by which we tax ourselves (decided by an imperfectly filtered majority rule) for the programs we say we want.

Once we take responsibility for our government again, once we can be asked about what we're willing to do for the policy outcomes we say we want, then we can start putting items like the gas tax back on the table for discussion. But until then, many sound proposals that actually ask something of the public will remain toxic.

Posted by: dasimon | December 24, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I think too much is being made of the power of corporate lobbyists, specifically the oil, coal, auto and gas lobbies, to obstruct policies that address climate change and replace the use of fossil fuels for our energy needs. Equally culpable for this obstruction is the American voter, IMHO, who will vote out of office any member of Congress or president who supports a gas tax. Although the American political system is irrefutably broken, and has become a de facto one party system (the party of the giant for-profit corporations representing the wealthiest industries and their bankers), we the people are just as culpable for failing to make the tough choices and sacrifices that are necessary to solving most of our problems.

Posted by: sicily726 | December 28, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

At some level, this is a failure of democracy itself, a la Caplan's "Myth of the Rational Voter".

Posted by: staticvars | December 30, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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