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Will the public sector doom the private sector?

James Fallows doesn't think America is in decline, at least so far as our economic fundamentals ad future potential go. But he worries that our increasingly dysfunctional government could put it there. "I have seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it."

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

The most charitable statement of the problem is that the American government is a victim of its own success. It has survived in more or less recognizable form over more than two centuries—long enough to become mismatched to the real circumstances of the nation. If Henry Adams were whooshed from his Washington of a century ago to our Washington of today, he would find it shockingly changed, except for the institutions of government. Same two political parties, same number of members of the House (since 1913, despite more than a threefold increase in population), essentially same rules of debate in the Senate. Thomas Jefferson’s famed wish for “a little rebellion now and then” as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government” is a nice slogan for organizing rallies, but is not how his country has actually operated.

I'd amend that a bit: The rules of debate aren't really the same, and they're not used in the same ways they once were, as Fallows mentions later in his article. But that speaks to deeper, broader changes in the polity, and in the parties. If the rules are a bit different, the political culture -- and thus the purposes to which the rules are bent -- are very, very different, and at some point, the system is going to have to change and adapt to the new realities in which it functions. If it doesn't then, as Fallows says, America has much to worry about.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 6, 2010; 9:34 AM ET
 
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Comments

I don't remember a lot of worry about America being in decline during the Clinton years. I know that lots of people will dismiss this as partisan sniping, but as I see it the central problem our nation faces is that the Republican party no longer has any interest in governing well.

That doesn't mean that there aren't ways that the structure of our government could be improved. I agree with Ezra that the filibuster should be eliminated. But the filibuster would be a minor problem rather than a major one if the Republicans weren't determined to cause the Democrats to fail by whatever means necessary.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | January 6, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

The most certain way "The Public Sector will Doom the Private Sector" is thru the unfunded liabilities for pulic sector pensions and retiree medical insurance. The total compensation for state and local employees is 49% higher than for private sector. Federal employees compensation is 99% higher.
The private sector has to compete with China and India. We can not do so effectively while carrying the bloated public sector on our backs.

Posted by: HarryMoser | January 7, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

A political party committed to the premise that government is fundamentally harmful to society and should be eliminated ("starve the beast") is not going to have the slightest inclination or competence to "govern well."

Good governance puts governments to work for the benefit of the Nation.

Why govern well and risk demonstrating the baselessness of its fondest ideology??


Posted by: Laurie6 | January 7, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I think Jefferson's quote is actually quite right--we just haven't been doing it lately. I see the best possible solution to the problem is enough ordinary people showing their (latent) political might, like for example, somehow forcing the system modification that legislators don't have anything to do with drawing districts. But the electorate has changed--maybe we've become too fat, dumbed-down, and happy--things may have to get worse before they get better.

Posted by: brownehn | January 10, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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