Why we're screwed
May 2, 2013 9:50 PM   Subscribe

Why the American political system is so dysfunctional today "But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate."

And therefore it's even worse than it looks: "Their principal conclusion is unequivocal: Today’s Republicans in Congress behave like a parliamentary party in a British-style parliament, a winner-take-all system. But a parliamentary party — “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” — doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.” These Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively."

How it happened: "[I]t really is remarkable that for all the bellyaching about the decline of bipartisan behavior in DC there's very little attention paid to the fact that there are actual reasons this has happened beyond Newt Gingrich being a meany and bloggers being too shrill. The Jim Crow South gave rise to an odd structure of American political institutions whereby both of the parties contained substantial ideological diversity. This had the benefit of setting the stage for a wide array of cross-cutting alliances. It came, however, at the cost of consigning a substantial portion of the population to life under a brutal system of apartheid ruthlessly upheld through systematic violence. After that system collapsed, there was a two decade or so period during which the voters and parties were re-aligning themselves during which we had cross-cutting alliances but no apartheid. And now the aligning process is done, so we have two parties where essentially all Democrats are to the left of essentially all Republicans and so you have relatively few genuinely bipartisan coalitions."
posted by bookman117 (93 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Worth mentioning (and linking) is David Runciman's article in the LRB about the relationship between National Socialism in Germany and Dixie during the New Deal years [may be paywalled]. In it, he writes:
However, the really significant compromises were the ones made by Northern politicians. Katznelson persuasively argues that the core features of the New Deal were fashioned out of Northern acquiescence and Southern intransigence. The give-and-take was highly asymmetrical. Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern representatives in Congress, above all in the Senate, to get his legislative programme for reviving the American economy passed. Though in a permanent minority, Southern senators wielded disproportionate influence. There were two reasons for this. First, they were more united than any rival grouping. What united them was race, and a shared sense that they represented the final bulwark against the destruction of the white order. Any local differences were put aside when segregation was on the line. Unity made them disciplined but also highly adaptable: Southern representatives would forge whatever alliances were needed to keep the South intact. If that meant doing deals with Republicans, so be it. Roosevelt knew he couldn’t rely on the Southern politicians in his party if they had any sense that their way of life was under threat. So he was loath to put them to the test. He may also have had a sneaking sympathy with their predicament. He was at ease among Southerners (as he was with pretty much everybody), and regularly holidayed in South Carolina, where he apparently felt at home. He believed that if the South was going to change, it would have to do so at its own pace. His administration had more urgent business to attend to.
posted by anewnadir at 9:59 PM on May 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think what's going to happen is the executive branch is just going to start making de facto law through executive orders and so on. The legislature, if it is paralyzed by gridlock, can't really do anything to stop it, and the supreme court hasn't been particularly willing to step in to stop executive over-reach recently.
posted by empath at 10:09 PM on May 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


-Just How Polarized is the US Congress?
-The GOP's Demographic Time-Bomb: "Nate Silver's demographic and immigration reform calculator is worth a look."
posted by kliuless at 10:10 PM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you are talking about the real will of the people, I don't think you can leave out the gerrymandering that took place after the last census. In my opinion, the main reason why there are so many Republicans in the House. Article 1
posted by Foam Pants at 10:24 PM on May 2, 2013 [12 favorites]


I'm not sure why this is being posted now, with a "We're screwed" urgency. (Subtle editorializing!) The first link was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections (mostly quoting someone from 1990), and the third link was written in the middle of the Bush administration.
posted by John Cohen at 10:50 PM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I remember reading that Linz essay in grad school and it sort of blew my mind at the time, but it was hard to really grasp his point because it seemed like our (U.S.) system did work on a certain level. 7 years later, with the failure of gun control, it seems crystal clear.
posted by lunasol at 10:54 PM on May 2, 2013


Yeah, if you wanted action in DC, you should have voted for Romney.

Otherwise, elect better Democrats.
posted by notyou at 10:55 PM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because it's a slow motion destruction that seems unavoidable.
posted by bookman117 at 10:55 PM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you are talking about the real will of the people, I don't think you can leave out the gerrymandering that took place after the last census. In my opinion, the main reason why there are so many Republicans in the House. Article 1

Yeah, the GOP has basically given up on winning and gone all-in on cheating.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:57 PM on May 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies?

The "legislative majority" under question pretty much relies on systemic over-representation via gerrymandering in the House, not to mention constitutional over-representation in the Senate, where they're a minority that abuses procedural rules.

I don't think there's much of a real question about who has the stronger claim, but that doesn't seem to be the rule of the game.
posted by weston at 10:57 PM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can one really consider a bunch of obscenely wealthy old white men to be "representative"?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:36 PM on May 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Why the American political system is so dysfunctional today

People on the left use "dysfunctional" the way people on the right use "tyranny".

The government is in fact functioning about the same as it ever has. Things meander along, bills get passed, programs get funded and unfunded, once in a generation a major policy shift comes along (hello healthcare!) and pundits on all sides decry the terribly unfair advantage everyone else has.

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."
--John Godfrey Saxe (1869)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:38 PM on May 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


It seems pretty simple to me. The 1% or 0.1%, aka the "Job Creators" are currently hamstrung by their vicious tax load, unreasonably strict (and unnecessary) environmental rules, and the ruthless class warfare being waged against them.

We need to give these people more breathing room to create more jobs. Therefore, it logically follows that we must eliminate all taxes on them and rescind most or all of our job creation strangulating environmental laws.

However, this won't be enough to allow the "Job Creators" to realize their full potential. What we also need is direct transfer payments of all taxes from the 99% directly into the hands of these economic geniuses completely bypassing all governmental agencies (We all know government is wasteful).

If they can create more jobs by eliminating their taxes, imagine just how many more jobs they could create if we (the lower 99%) paid them to do so! We need to give them the room and motivation to do what they do best. After all, it's obvious that they love nothing more than being unleashed to create new jobs!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:43 PM on May 2, 2013 [15 favorites]


Why can't gridlock represent the will of the people? There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:45 PM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Politics and Vetting Leave Key U.S. Posts Long Unfilled
One of the worst backlogs is at the State Department, where nearly a quarter of the most senior posts are not filled, including those in charge of embassy security and counterterrorism. The Treasury Department is searching for a new No. 2, the Department of Homeland Security is missing its top two cybersecurity officials and about 30 percent of the top jobs at the Commerce Department are still vacant
Vacancies, backlog plague Federal Judiciary
Some 31 of those vacancies are considered judicial emergencies because there are more than 600 cases per judge or because the post has been vacant for more than 18 months.

Partisan politics are being blamed for the rising number of empty benches, which have continued to grow in this Congress. The White House and Democrats specifically blame Republicans of slowing down the process.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:50 PM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why can't gridlock represent the will of the people? There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.

Stop eating food inspected by the FDA this very instant!
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:59 PM on May 2, 2013 [36 favorites]


Why can't gridlock represent the will of the people? There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.

Gridlock doesn't mean the federal government stops doing stuff.
posted by empath at 12:03 AM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Now Pope Guilty, that's absurd. As we all know, when the government spends money on things that I directly benefit from, that's important and necessary infrastructure, vital to our way of life. When it spends money on things that I don't directly benefit from, that's waste and "fat" that can be "trimmed."

Jon Chait at New York has a pair of articles up: Obama, 'Leadership,' and Magical Thinking and What Obama Can Actually Do About Congress
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:04 AM on May 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


"There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks."

This is literally the opposite of how the social contract works.

But I invite you to use Libertarian Airlines on your next business trip or vacation.
posted by bardic at 12:07 AM on May 3, 2013 [22 favorites]


> There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.

The reason that this country is going to shit is precisely because of hardcore group of individuals who wish to tear down the government and replace it with nothing. (I inevitably find that this idea comes with a lot of other ideas that are also false to objective, provable truth, like the concept that climate change is a conspiracy of scientists to steal from hard-working businessmen.)

A rational person might look at countries with big government like Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia - yes, and the United States - and compare them to places with no central government, like Somalia, Afghanistan, the Congo and the Sudan.

The results of this deeply irresponsible behavior are already apparent in America and will only get worse. I hope you live to see the full folly of your mad beliefs revealed as logical consequences.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:09 AM on May 3, 2013 [40 favorites]


Should have specified NEW stuff.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:14 AM on May 3, 2013


Somalia, Afghanistan, the Congo and the Sudan

Those must be the people who want the U.S. government to "stop doing stuff."
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:18 AM on May 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


My super-secret theory is that Libertarians are, among other things, basically nihilists. Their usual argument goes "Gubmint can't fix this problem here so gubmint can never fix any problem anywhere and we should just dig bunkers in the forest the end."

But as mentioned, social contract -- we participate in civil society with the adult understanding that we don't get everything we want. I didn't want a stupid, expensive, useless war in Iraq but hey, guess what I got to help pay for. On the flip-side, I really do like things like highways and hospitals and universities and the internet. It behooves me to realize that many of the things that make modern life so great are kind of invisible. Or better, they've already been paid for and it would be kind of shitty and childish of me to say "Hey, enough of these highways and hospitals and universities and internets, I got mine!"

Honestly, among political philosophies, it's pretty damn ugly all around. I certainly have problems with certain people IRL, but in general I really appreciate living in modern society and I have a hard time grok-ing people who simply want to stop paying a reasonable amount of their income towards continuing to live peacefully in this society with me.
posted by bardic at 12:21 AM on May 3, 2013 [25 favorites]


Should have specified NEW stuff.

I kind of agree with that, but not at the expense of destroying or un-funding existing stuff like the CDC and public education. The Republicans have been the party lately of throwing a wrench in the works of every government effort and then pointing to the exploded machine with broken bits of gear all over the floor and screaming see it doesn't work, you can't trust government to do this!. I recognize that the Democrats would like to implement the same strategy against Republican favored institutions, but Democrats are better if only because they haven't figured out how to do it as effectively.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:43 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


As we saw with the air traffic controllers suddenly getting funded, all we need to do is make sure anything they pass (or don't pass) inconveniences Congress as much as it inconveniences the rest of us. Then shit gets done with the quickness.

The first time a Congressman had to deal with a non-gold plated high-deductible low-coverage health insurance policy we'd have national health care passed with sweeping majorities.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:55 AM on May 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


I have to note that this feels like a uniquely enervating moment, politically, although in many ways as a crisis it pales in comparison to certain others we've had. There definitely has been a party "realignment" although not the type that replaced the old Whigs with the Republicans; instead it ideologically sorted the parties in a way that hadn't been seen in decades, so we're really unused to dealing with this mode of politics. I'm not sure it's a permanent crisis and doubt it will create a dictatorship, though, because my own pet analysis is that it's the death throes of the Tea Party and their allies as a force in politics. The demographics will likely outflank even the most brazen gerrymandering and jury-rigging attempts, perhaps more quickly than we now suspect. The current red state/blue state and rural/urban imbalance is only going to be this particularly balanced (in a power sense) for a short time.

I'm no Democratic triumphalist, though. The new ethnic representation and changes in urban/suburban makeup will allow for new political issues and alliances to arise. I feel that the American system, in the long run, will almost demand this sort of change, much of which will have to come from the current Republican horse's-ass-in-the-road philosophy being altered, but obviously there's nothing requiring a new progressive majority either.

There are real problems right now in the lopsided power of the Republican minority in the Senate and the lopsided geometrical advantage of concentrated blue voters versus spread-out red voters, but the Republicans will really have to work hard to extend that as their base shrinks. If they have any advantages, they are primarily the gradual elimination of gay marriage as an issue and the potential for an opening on immigration, allowing some Hispanics to return to the fold. Lord knows they're already trying to work that angle.
posted by dhartung at 1:17 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


The first time a Congressman had to deal with a non-gold plated high-deductible low-coverage health insurance policy we'd have national health care passed with sweeping majorities.

I've spent the last few days on the phone with some of the nicest, hardest working, but utterly incompetent people who run the national tax care system in America. Congress really has done itself proud with the IRS. A model of efficiency and good governance if there every once was. I am kidding of course. I feel sorry for the people who work there - what an awful job - and I really appreciate the individual, dedicated efforts of some of the people there - but that can't compensate for the bureaucratic complexity of the system. I'd rather see individual members of Congress forced to deal with the IRS and all this silly talk about putting those same people in charge of health care would come to an end.

This is why there is gridlock because the a portion of the electorate steadfastly holds to a belief in the capabilities of government that belies all practical experience. This type of irrational thinking is what gives purchase to the other type of irrational thinking. It was after all Bolshevism that gave rise to fascism and that same political dynamic, greatly dampened, is still at play.

Marx was right in a way that you have to see these things as class struggles and the confident focus with which Democrats place on race and gender and social issues would seem to be greatly misplaced.
posted by three blind mice at 1:31 AM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


In 2007, the author of this article won an award from a pro-labour foundation for his blogging in favour of social justice. He is considered a left-wing author by American standards. Last week, he published an article on how "it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States."

Let's not blame all of America's problems on Republicans. American politics is dysfunctional in part because the American left is dysfunctional.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:49 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is way too much bullshit here for my tastes :

First, your election style determines whether your political system is "winner take all" or not. There is no shortage of parliamentary systems that're vastly less "winner take all" than congress, but they all use proportional representation, ranked voting, or whatever, ala Germany. Your parliament only becomes "winner take all" if you hold asinine first-past-the-post elections, ala Britain. I'd argue that Republicans holding the house says they'd hold parliament if the U.S. had one with the same asinine gerrymandered first-past-the-post electoral districts.

Second, we need more separation-of-powers, not less. Europe too! Any process restrictions like separation-of-powers merely dampen policy moves, never prevent them outright. We lack sensible public healthcare because the insurance companies' lobbyists and publicists manipulate people into fearing public healthcare. Conversely, Republicans are losing their asses on the gay marriage issue precisely because no powerful corporate interests oppose it.

Parlements and separation-of-powers both exist to widen the voices represented, but they do so differently. Obama would never overcome Hillary's party influence in a parliamentary system. Third parties win at least a couple seats in parlements, even in the U.K. In theory, separation-of-powers is the much more powerful concept though, well proportional, ranked, etc. voting blows through all the benefits of a parliamentary system.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:13 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why the American political system is so dysfunctional today

People on the left use "dysfunctional" the way people on the right use "tyranny".

The government is in fact functioning about the same as it ever has. Things meander along, bills get passed, programs get funded and unfunded, once in a generation a major policy shift comes along (hello healthcare!) and pundits on all sides decry the terribly unfair advantage everyone else has.

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."
--John Godfrey Saxe (1869)


Culture has changed around it. Words concepts that were mainstream are now taboo. Come now, the principles must change with the mindset and values else they'll belong to the "representative" old white men with money.
posted by infini at 3:10 AM on May 3, 2013


Why can't gridlock represent the will of the people? There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.

Did you know that sequestration has seriously screwed Head Start? I get that you have a different political orientation than I, but can we agree that giving education to poor kids is a pretty good thing for government to do?

And that the current fuckery in D.C. is making it impossible for the gov't to do some things that are really important to everybody?
posted by angrycat at 3:26 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


oh, saw your caveat about "new" gov't stuff. But don't you think gridlock is making it very difficult for the gov't to do the "old" gov't stuff?
posted by angrycat at 3:28 AM on May 3, 2013


Ghostride The Whip: "The first time a Congressman had to deal with a non-gold plated high-deductible low-coverage health insurance policy we'd have national health care passed with sweeping majorities."

Yeah, I've always thought that elected members are part of the public sector. The implication of this is that they should participate in the same healthcare and pension schemes, be subject to the same pay award processes, travel and expenses policies and so on. If that was the case, I suspect said members may come to a slightly different view of the pay and conditions that are "affordable" and "practical" to provide for the rank and file employees.
It's difficult to have a functional government when those making the decisions are largely immune to the consequences of their decisions.
posted by Jakey at 3:40 AM on May 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is a really overarching simplification to a nuanced problem. The comparison with other forms of government is interesting bar room chat, but seems largely irrelevant. The British system is so strikingly different from the American system, that a comparison is barely possible. House of Lords. Lack of States. It's like comparing a kangaroo and a dolphin. Both eat. Both reproduce. But the specifics are so consequential, the comparison is generally useless.

The nuances of the problem have to do as much with the structure of government, as Significant External Factors. Corporate Lobbying. Moral Agendas. Gerrymandering. Mass Media. Each of those factors independently distorts the functioning of the government, and create a maelstrom when taken together.

Corporate Lobbying – an extension of corporate personhood – is probably the most corrosive aspect, for it shifts the political power from "one person, one vote" where influence is attached to singular identities, to a two-tiered system where citizens have one vote, but corporations essentially have unlimited votes. By extension, this could be said to be the representation of equity ownership in politics. If the entire political system was structured to enable influence by person, regardless of economic category, this is the end-run that has probably corrupted it the most.

Moral Agendas are just foolishness. Despite America proclaiming a separation of Church and State, the result is that the political process looks more like the Vatican than England. Abortion is probably the most telling issue. Republicans have it worked out quite well. Whip up the base around abortion as murder and the taking of life, and get poor people to vote against murder, whilst voting in the decimation of the social state. Liberals aren't much better, by aligning gay marriage with fiscal irresponsibility. The reality is that each side uses moral agendas to sway voters toward economic agendas.

And then the most glaring problem:

And now the aligning process is done, so we have two parties where essentially all Democrats are to the left of essentially all Republicans and so you have relatively few genuinely bipartisan coalitions."

A pluralistic choice which results in a government that looks like an oligopoly. The differences between the parties seem relatively minor from afar. Both invest more heavily in defence than education. Both play party to the aims of finance. Both use executive orders and signing statements. Both assert American primacy over compliance with international law. Both have presided over exploding inequalities in income.

When you look at oligopolies – like oil companies – the first goal of the participants is the protection of the oligopoly itself, for that is the root of their power and authority. In the case of a pluralistic government democracy, the highest order of both parties is to maintain the structure of a two-party system. That they have different views on a minority of positions is largely irrelevant in that they share the majority of views. In essence, the power of the political class becomes the ability to protect the political class. Which banner one operates under is secondary to inclusion in the class.

And it's a false choice. There's absolutely no reason that there should be an oligopoly. In business, it's said that there are natural monopolies where duplication of infrastructure is harmful to all participants in the system. That is very often true, however those firms are often very heavily regulated, for there is a lack of competition present that can easily lead to exploitation. The trade-off is that if there is going to be an oligopoly, there must be commensurate protections in place.

If the government is an oligopoly, who regulates that oligopoly? Perhaps the original intention was the fourth-estate, yet now even the fourth-estate is so concentrated in terms of ownership and involvement with the dominant power hierarchy, that it fails in even basic informal regulatory tasks.

There is absolutely no reason where there should be only two political parties. That only truly serves one class of people – the political class – to the exclusion of all others.
posted by nickrussell at 4:01 AM on May 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Stupid headline.

You sell me "why did Johnny die?" and then I discover that what you've actually delivered is a technical description of how a controlled deflagration of mixed oxidizers/reductants results in a rapid expansion of gases that interact with a brass container, lead projectile and a long, heavy steel cylinder with an exit orifice and aiming facility. NO SHIT, IT'S A GUN. He died because you shot him.

Now tell me why it was fired and by whom.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:24 AM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd rather see individual members of Congress forced to deal with the IRS and all this silly talk about putting those same people in charge of health care would come to an end.

Wait what? I completely missed the proposal for the IRS to be put in charge of health care. Who did that?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:32 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


If "we're screwed" at the moment, its because of the corrupting power of money influence. The oldest story in the governing book.

When the regulators are being chosen from amongst the people who are being regulated, that's a symptom. When Congress spends half its time with its begging-bowl held out to special interests, that's a symptom. When the bulk of discretionary spending is aimed at the chosen few, that's a symptom. When the majority deeply distrusts government "of the people, by the people, for the people", that's a symptom.

The fathers pointed out that, for such a government to succeed, the people need to be well-educated and involved. When that begins to happen again, the disease can be carved out of the herd and unscrewing can commence.
posted by Twang at 4:36 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is all correct as to the political science-- with the end of the consensus on white supremacy, the two parties are now polarized, and the Republicans in particular behave like a parliamentary party.

I think it's important to note that the GOP's behavior is entirely in bad faith.

The GOP created the deficits under Bush Jr., pushed for an uncheckable executive, federalized authority in matters like education and drug policy, and the executive’s ability to wiretap– and detain & torture– US citizens without legal process. This record earned him around 80% approval from “conservative Republicans”. About 15 minutes after Pres. Obama was inaugurated, they decided that they cared passionately about the deficit. “We must slash taxes on the wealthy and shift health care costs onto seniors,” Paul Ryan explains, “because deficit.” But everyone old enough to remember the Bush administration knows that Republicans don’t care about the deficit, or any other policy principles.

David Frum has explained, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox”. That is, regardless of its intellectual history, conservatism in the US today is a subset of the infotainment industry, marketed as a lifestyle choice without any particular ideological component beyond a dislike of perceived outsiders. Conservatism is the act of persuading whites to sit through ads for gold coins.

That means "heightening the contradictions", working to foster resentment. So the Heritage Foundation's health insurance reform proposal, favored by Republicans for decades, has to be derided as fascist socialism with a side of death panels, when it's proposed by a Democrat. A background check bill on gun safety laws with around 90 percent approval fails to overcome a Senate filibuster because Republicans don't want to do be on the same side as the president. It works the same way on any issue.

None of this is to say that Democrats are pure and untainted by tribalism. But tribalism is the sum total of what one of the two major parties in the US has to offer. (Mitt Romney barely bothered to propose any policies during the last election. In a world where RomneyCare can be decried as unconstitutional tyranny, what would be the upside?) That's new, and it's not good.
posted by ibmcginty at 4:39 AM on May 3, 2013 [58 favorites]


.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:56 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the worst backlogs is at the State Department, where nearly a quarter of the most senior posts are not filled, including those in charge of embassy security and counterterrorism. The Treasury Department is searching for a new No. 2, the Department of Homeland Security is missing its top two cybersecurity officials and about 30 percent of the top jobs at the Commerce Department are still vacant

Is Obama running out of Wall Street executives and heiresses?
posted by indubitable at 5:11 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Assigning blame for complex phenomena is tricky, of course, but I don't really blame business interests or even the GOP for the current congressional dysfunction. I just think that legislatures in general are poorly adapted for modern policymaking, and the U.S. congress is spectacularly worse adapted than most. Other large organizations, like corporations, non-profits and universities, don't set policy this way. I certainly support congressional reform ideas, like eliminating the filibuster, or the mandatory $100 donation idea linked elsewhere, but I think they'll mainly just help at the margins, and will provide much less value than simply shifting power to the executive branch. Which would help to resolve the massive disconnect between how most Americans seem to think their government works, and how it actually works.

My #1 wish for the U.S. government is that Congress would simply get out of the nitty-gritty of policymaking, like 10,000 page budgets, and limit itself to high-level decades-scope direction setting.
posted by gsteff at 5:23 AM on May 3, 2013


"It's like comparing a kangaroo and a dolphin. Both eat. Both reproduce"

And both have their own tv shows?

"asinine first-past-the-post elections, ala Britain"

Damn straight. We have some of that shit going on right now.

Awesome thread.
posted by marienbad at 5:45 AM on May 3, 2013


I completely missed the proposal for the IRS to be put in charge of health care.

I expect the joke is that congressmen don't do their own taxes. Indeed, they can have the IRS do it for them.

who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies?

When I was in grade school, the spiel was that congress made the laws and the executive executed them. (Or vetoed them, if he felt he absolutely had to.) Which would suggest that in most areas the president, strictly speaking, ought not to have a policy at all.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:45 AM on May 3, 2013


Is Obama running out of Wall Street executives and heiresses?

Oh, that's rich.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:14 AM on May 3, 2013


Dysfunctional by design.

These articles act as though the system wasn't designed this way on purpose. The founders never wanted any particular branch of government to be all powerful. Checks and Balances slow everything down on purpose to prevent dramatic, reactionary changes. Election cycles are stacked ingeniously to prevent any particular election from sweeping in too large of a change.

This creates stability. Real change only comes after multiple election cycles over the course of a decade or more.

Perhaps this doesn't jive with the modern, overnight delivery, fast food, always on, accelerating culture we live in, but that's the way it was designed to work.
posted by j03 at 6:15 AM on May 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


I remember reading that Linz essay in grad school and it sort of blew my mind at the time, but it was hard to really grasp his point because it seemed like our (U.S.) system did work on a certain level. 7 years later, with the failure of gun control, it seems crystal clear.

The system was purposefully designed to be grindy. Laws made in haste are usually not good laws.
posted by gjc at 6:17 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that the House Republicans haven't been voting as a bloc. To be sure, they haven't been voting with the Democrats on anything (no matter how trivial), but they're also shooting down a whole ton of their own legislation.

A lot of the narratives being told here seem to be based around the false premise that the GOP is unified. Even players like Karl Rove are beginning to wake up to the fact that the party's ideological spread ("extreme" to "very extreme"), uncompromising politics, and lack of token moderates is going to spell doom at the polls.

It's also worth noting that the Republicans aren't even very good at passing their own platform into law (at least, on the Federal level -- state politics are a very different game that the Republicans are much, much better at). The GOP passed any law that it wanted in the early years of the Bush presidency, and (thankfully) still failed to make any inroads on the sweeping political agenda that it promised to the electorate. The policies that it did manage to pass had the support of most Democrats. This doesn't speak very highly of the Bush-era Democrats, but it nevertheless remains true that the GOP are only really ever successful when they're pushing policies that have strong bipartisan support.
posted by schmod at 6:19 AM on May 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Southern politicians have been holding this nation hostage since 1775.
posted by absalom at 6:23 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Which would suggest that in most areas the president, strictly speaking, ought not to have a policy at all.

Obama has said as much himself. Or he used to, when he was a young idealistic President in his first term.

It's the classic academic blinders that really smart people run up against in the real world.

I think of the Lawyer Bill Clinton saying "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." By a technical, legal definition, he may have been correct.... technically. It was a delusion. He failed to realize his audience, the jury of the American People, were only going to see that as a lie.

I think of the Stanford Professor of Law Lawrence Lessig fighting the copyright laws in Eldrige vs. Ashcroft in front of the supreme court. He used purely technical and sound reasoning to make his case, and was warned by advisors that he needed to make an emotional case and a case for societal impact as well. He brushed off these suggestions and regretted it when he lost the case.

The real world doesn't always operate logically by the rules that were set out.

Obama now does more policy and campaigning on it, which is what he needs to do. I just wish he had come around to that earlier.
posted by j03 at 6:27 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


And, yes. The Federal government was precisely designed to be slow and grind-y.

If there's one failure in the Constitution, it's the document's strong preference for a two-party system (which seems like an archaic holdover from the British Parliament, as Separation of Powers and Checks & Balances both strongly mitigate the need to maintain such a system).

I'm not saying that the political system should devolve into many small parties (which would probably work fine locally and in the House, might do OK in the Senate, and would be an utter disaster at the Executive level). However, the current system is very poorly equipped to handle a schism (or strong ideological shift) within one of the two parties. Whenever this happens, the legislature descends into chaos until two strong parties emerge and establish dominance.

Right now, this is probably happening in the Republican Party, as the Tea Party movement grows more and more distinct from the "mainline" GOP. If the Constitution didn't so strongly discourage third parties, the Tea Party would set itself up as its own independent entity, and almost everybody would be better off, as the Republicans wouldn't be constantly forced to engage in behind-the-scenes political brinksmanship within their own party.
posted by schmod at 6:29 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


My super-secret theory is that Libertarians are, among other things, basically nihilists. Their usual argument goes "Gubmint can't fix this problem here so gubmint can never fix any problem anywhere and we should just dig bunkers in the forest the end."

I've often thought the same thing. There is also some misanthropy tossed in. And if you study the ideological background of modern libertarianism, it mostly stems back from two ideological sources:

1- People rightly complaining about the legitimacy of a monarchy to rule unfettered. "The government" is really "the crown" in their cases, and a lot of the griping makes more sense when viewed from that perspective.

2- People whose wealth was liberated/stolen by revolutionaries. Revolutionary France, revolutionary Cuba, the reforms of the New Deal, etc. They are naturally skeptical of a government structure that gives that much power to an individual or small group. Even if that's currently not how it's being used.

Finally, they have a problem with democracy. They believe, and with some logical justification, that the will of the majority is not sufficient to justify everything. For example, they believe capital punishment is ethically and morally wrong, and that the will of the majority cannot be allowed to override that. They just draw the line that ought not be crossed closer to the individual than others would.
posted by gjc at 6:32 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


empath : I think what's going to happen is the executive branch is just going to start making de facto law through executive orders and so on.

And yet, you would call people who defend our right to armed rebellion crazy?


notyou : Otherwise, elect better Democrats Independents.

FTFY. It doesn't matter in the least which of the top two political parties you vote for. You want "change"? Change how you vote. Because the slate of losers pre-selected by the oligarchy for mass voting have already passed the "one of ours" test. They don't care which guy wins, any more than you and I care deeply about McDonalds vs Burger King.


bardic : This is literally the opposite of how the social contract works.

The government should not have anything to do with the "social contract". The government exists to pave the roads, trade with (and defend us from) other countries, and keep a basic level of domestic civility.

The "social contract" really needs to come from society, not at the point of the taxman's gun. Your church wants to take care of old ladies? Great! Have at it. I'll even help, both monetarily and in-kind. But leave Uncle Sam out of the extortion-for-charity business, thanks.


IndigoJones : I expect the joke is that congressmen don't do their own taxes.

Neither do the vast majority of Americans. For this year's taxes, the IRS' Taxpayer Advocate Service expects that 60% went to the likes of H&R Block, and 30% will use TurboTax (etc) to do it for them. So at most, you could say 40% "do" their own, though realistically, I'd call that 10%.
posted by pla at 6:40 AM on May 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


The founders never wanted any particular branch of government to be all powerful. Checks and Balances slow everything down on purpose to prevent dramatic, reactionary changes. Election cycles are stacked ingeniously to prevent any particular election from sweeping in too large of a change.

They also never wanted a party-system. In fact, George Washington in his farewell address spoke at length about the risks that adopting a party-system in our nation would:
"...distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration....agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one....against another....it opens the door to foreign [and corporate] influence and corruption...thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."
And yet, there are many now who will swear up and down that having an oppositional, two-party system was central to the design of our system at its founding and that it's a fundamental obligation of the parties to oppose each other.

I'd almost think we could do worse than banning political parties all together and forcing each candidate for public office to stand or fall on their own merits (with publicly financed campaigns).
posted by saulgoodman at 6:44 AM on May 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


If there's one failure in the Constitution, it's the document's strong preference for a two-party system

It was not designed to prefer a two-party system. The two-party system is, if anything, an accidental bi-product of the constitution.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:46 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Another good argument for banning political parties (my own personal political pie in the sky): Political parties often have corrosive, anti-democratic influences on society.

Consider how Nazi, Ba'ath, and Communist Party membership have been used at various times around the world to discriminate in hiring and public contracting processes. Depending on the power of the local party machinery, that kind of hiring/economic discrimination has been known to occur in the US as well.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:56 AM on May 3, 2013


I'd rather see individual members of Congress forced to deal with the IRS and all this silly talk about putting those same people in charge of health care would come to an end.

Have you ever dealt with a health insurance company?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:59 AM on May 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


I don't see how you could ban political parties in a representative democracy. People and beliefs would still clump together, just with a lot less transparency for the public.

It would be good to take steps to discourage party whipping, though - that alone would solve half the problems we're facing.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:06 AM on May 3, 2013


It's ridiculous to say that there is partisan gridlock in Washington. There is a fairly narrow subset of issues upon which there is a clear partisan divide, and those issues are loudly debated, but the majority of public policy operates in a bipartisan fashion, and always has, particularly when you consider that 90% of what the federal government does, as opposed to talks about, are a very short list of core missions: collecting taxes and spending them on debt service, the military, social security, and Medicare.
posted by MattD at 7:14 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't see how you could ban political parties in a representative democracy

Well, of course, people could and would still form informal political coalitions and would identify with particular popular movements--they just couldn't make it a formal, business enterprise with mechanisms for collecting and distributing cash to member-candidates. What would be banned would be the formal, incorporated political parties, not belonging to groups of common political interest (that's covered under free association). At this point, even though they're extra-constitutional, the parties function like de facto parts of the electoral system (just as the lobbyist industry functions as a de facto part of our legislative processes, despite not being contemplated in the constitution). It's that I think we could realistically fix if we wanted to.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:17 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


States completely control the partisan character of politics.

States can -- and in many case have -- reduced the degree of partisan identification or polarization in elections, with "jungle" primaries (everyone runs on one list, top two move on without regard to party affiliation), non-partisan elections, or even transferable vote schemes if they wanted.

I don't think -- although some people would likely disagree -- that the Constitution even require that members of the House be elected from single-member districts, and as such a state, especially a large one, could have a European-style list-based proportional representation system. This would enhance partisanship, but in a multi-partisan direction. A lot of liberals wouldn't like this because it would eliminate the representation which the present district-based system gives to non-citizens and non-voters, and those people tend to have liberal neighbors (and thus inflate the effective voting power of liberals).
posted by MattD at 7:27 AM on May 3, 2013


And yet, you would call people who defend our right to armed rebellion crazy?

You have the right to elect your candidate to the executive branch, or vote enough congressmen in office to impeach him. Armed rebellion is actually still treason, and punishable by death, believe it or not.
posted by empath at 7:38 AM on May 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


I expect the joke is that congressmen don't do their own taxes. Indeed, they can have the IRS do it for them.

Got a cite for that? The story you linked doesn't appear to say that, and says nearly all of them hire accountants.
posted by Etrigan at 7:45 AM on May 3, 2013


A lot of liberals wouldn't like this because it would eliminate the representation which the present district-based system gives to non-citizens and non-voters, and those people tend to have liberal neighbors (and thus inflate the effective voting power of liberals).

You know, I used to throw around that lazy "liberals want this, liberals want that crap...", too, back when I went through a bout of "conservative" madness at one point in my college years. But then I came to my senses and realized that Liberalism is far too broad and context-specific a term to be meaningfully used in such a general way, that many "conservatives" are actually very liberal (in the classical sense) on many issues (economics for example), and then I stopped misusing the term pejoratively and/or to make blanket claims because it became clear to me I was being an idiot, that our country was founded on what previous generations called Liberalism, and that the modern usage of the term in politics does nothing more than conflate the most negative associations people have with all of the term's different senses of meaning (for example, when some people complain about "liberals" they're really thinking of sexual or social liberalism, which is not the political sense of the term at all--there are many "conservatives" who are quite liberal in that sense as well--Jack Ryan, for example).

The term as used much of the time now is just a meaningless epithet.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:46 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know much about American politics but the current Congress reminds me of a classroom full of petulant kindergartners having a collective tantrum because the mean old teacher has just told them they have to share their crayons.
Maybe a Congressional nap time followed by some milk and cookies would help.
posted by islander at 8:07 AM on May 3, 2013


islander: "I don't know much about American politics but the current Congress reminds me of a classroom full of petulant kindergartners having a collective tantrum because the mean old teacher has just told them they have to share their crayons.
Maybe a Congressional nap time followed by some milk and cookies would help.
"

Look, I see what you're doing, but this sort of commentary really isn't helpful.

It's easy to compare our legislature to a group of children. However, it'd be a lot more helpful if people made an effort to understand the structure and dynamics of our legislature, and discuss the ways that we could fix it (while also taking care to call out individual congresspeople who happen to be doing particularly excellent or terrible jobs).

Unfortunately, everyone (including the media) seem to be doing the former, while virtually nobody has taken the effort to construct opinions about the latter. We don't need any more people cheerleading about how terrible Congress is -- we get it; their approval rate has been hovering around 11% for quite some time.

You want Congress to do more about unemployment? That's great. How about articulating what you'd like Congress to do about it? If you don't want any new money to be spent on the solution, you'd especially better have some specific demands in mind, given that your two demands are more or less contradictory.

You want to complain about the political process? Did you vote in the last election? Can you even name your elected representatives? How about naming one or two issues that you care strongly about, and whether or not your elected officials agree with you? These are the most basic, bare-bones things that are necessary to make the political process work, and almost nobody does them.

Want to complain about the fact that the Tea Party house has no clue how to obey its own rules or understand parliamentary procedure? That's a legitimate gripe, and one that you could argue using specific examples (while calling out the few most egregious offenders). It's much more helpful than a vague kindergarten analogy.

Oh, and for whatever it's worth, Congress would reliably lean much further to the left if DC got the same level of representation that Vermont or Wyoming have. Half a million Americans are unjustly barred from taking part in the democratic process. People should be angry about this.
posted by schmod at 8:27 AM on May 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


People should be angry about this.

Actually, I'm sure that many are. However, I think there's a fundamental disconnect between being outraged by this that or the other and being made uncomfortable enough to do something about it.

Maybe the trick is to find out what will make folks uncomfortable enough to act in their own interest.
posted by Mooski at 8:33 AM on May 3, 2013


Did you vote in the last election? Can you even name your elected representatives? etc etc etc

islander is Canadian.
posted by forgetful snow at 8:34 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The first time a Congressman had to deal with a non-gold plated high-deductible low-coverage health insurance policy we'd have national health care passed with sweeping majorities.

That's part of Obamacare and takes effect 1/1/2014.

The implication of this is that they should participate in the same healthcare and pension schemes

They do. Members participate in one of the standard federal retirement packages, and until they're kicked off in January participate in the standard federal health care scheme with a couple of minor additions*.

*They can pay to receive outpatient care from the Attending Physician's office, and they can receive care at DC military hospitals but inpatient stuff gets billed back to their insurance. The expensive stuff is all dealt with by a standard federal health insurance package.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:45 AM on May 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd almost think we could do worse than banning political parties all together and forcing each candidate for public office to stand or fall on their own merits

That would be more or less Nebraska, where their legislature is/was-until-very-recently seriously nonpartisan.

The results aren't pretty. Nonpartisan government looks almost exactly the same as old-style one-party government in the south. And it turns out that in Nebraska, members' voting records were almost completely unconnected to the positions they took before the voters (Wright and Schaffner, APSR 2002). Or go back to the wellspring and read Key.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then Nebraska's political culture is corrupt and having two parties won't really improve things, especially not if both parties depend on more or less the same underlying funding mechanisms (which inevitably favor wealthier interests). If the political culture generally is corrupt, no amount of systemic reform can fix it. The culture has to change or the voting public's ballot-box behavior at the primary level has to change. Any system can be undermined from within by bad-faith actors.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:04 AM on May 3, 2013


The "social contract" really needs to come from society, not at the point of the taxman's gun. Your church wants to take care of old ladies? Great! Have at it. I'll even help, both monetarily and in-kind. But leave Uncle Sam out of the extortion-for-charity business, thanks.

That's an unsurprisingly repellent idea that manages to simultaneously simplify the issue at hand to meaninglessness and then still manage to get even that wrong.
posted by codacorolla at 9:11 AM on May 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


at the point of the taxman's gun.

Objectivists are drama queens. Incendiary hyperbolic horse shit demagoguery. He's got the exact same gun for the roads. The government acts to assure the social contract just as it acts to assure any other.

You are what the commies used to call a useful idiot.


larry_darrell put up a great Abraham Lincoln quote in another thread:

There has never been but one question in all civilization -- how to keep a few men from saying to many men: You work and earn bread and we will eat it.
posted by Trochanter at 9:11 AM on May 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Then Nebraska's political culture is corrupt and having two parties won't really improve things

This really isn't an adequate rejoinder to ROU_xenophobe's point. For the most part, culture isn't really that important--structure and incentives are.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:17 AM on May 3, 2013


For the most part, culture isn't really that important--structure and incentives are.

I disagree, because it's the culture that determines what incentives people value enough that they'll actually be effective. In a system that counted on people to value personal honor, for example, shameless money-grubbers would be immune to the incentives and at an advantage. So the culture plays a big role.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:21 AM on May 3, 2013


As to the thread topic, I look at all these movers and shakers in Washington, and I see they're all rich. And I see a system that's working like all get-out for the rich. Better and better and better. It doesn't seem like you have to look very much farther than that.

Even if you don't question their morals, you've got to question the strength of their motivation. I mean life's pretty flippin' good, right?
posted by Trochanter at 9:54 AM on May 3, 2013


The "social contract" really needs to come from society, not at the point of the taxman's gun. Your church wants to take care of old ladies? Great! Have at it. I'll even help, both monetarily and in-kind. But leave Uncle Sam out of the extortion-for-charity business, thanks.

Government is how we choose to organize those things which we believe we should all take part in. Keeping old people from starving in the streets, for instance, is one of those things I believe our shared humanity dictates we all work together to accomplish.
posted by newdaddy at 10:41 AM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


You have the right to elect your candidate to the executive branch, or vote enough congressmen in office to impeach him. Armed rebellion is actually still treason, and punishable by death, believe it or not.

well, unless you win.

We pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour wasn't just a pithy slogan. Their rebellion had real consequences for everyone who signed that document. These same people who signed their own death warrant, should they fail, also set up a system that is designed to prevent a tyrany of the majority or the minority. The majority can't force their will on the minority, and the minority can't actually accomplish anything but maintaining the status quo without the majority. It might be wise to at least try and find the wisdom in why they did that before talking about removing those protections.
posted by bartonlong at 10:54 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


A key, it seems to me, would be filibuster reform. The democrats had two chances to fix this, and they blinked. I understand there is always the worry that the other party will get in power, and then the shoe will be on the other foot, but this seems to me to be evidence that the Dems don't want to be able to pass things, even relatively ineffectual gun legislation.
posted by wittgenstein at 10:56 AM on May 3, 2013


Yeah, I've always thought that elected members are part of the public sector. The implication of this is that they should participate in the same healthcare and pension schemes, be subject to the same pay award processes, travel and expenses policies and so on. If that was the case, I suspect said members may come to a slightly different view of the pay and conditions that are "affordable" and "practical" to provide for the rank and file employees.

Members of Congress use the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan like other federal employees.
posted by naoko at 11:05 AM on May 3, 2013


Libertarians describing their ideal government/leader is a lot like pet owners describing their pets' personality: Unbeknownst to them, and obvious to everyone else, they're talking about themselves.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:28 AM on May 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


tl;dr any of it.

Can't the public just fire politicians and / or sue them for not representing their constituents or the pile of lies promised during electioneering?
posted by yoga at 11:33 AM on May 3, 2013


Can't the public just fire politicians and / or sue them for not representing their constituents or the pile of lies promised during electioneering?

Yes. Unfortunately, that mechanism is usually under the control of the administration you're trying to get rid of.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2013


Corporate Lobbying – an extension of corporate personhood – is probably the most corrosive aspect, for it shifts the political power from "one person, one vote" where influence is attached to singular identities, to a two-tiered system where citizens have one vote, but corporations essentially have unlimited votes. By extension, this could be said to be the representation of equity ownership in politics.

I remember reading a work of fiction where large conglomerates got a law passed to help the elderly and destitute get to the polls. Essentially, they could give their political vote to a proxy, much in the same way a shareholder can in a corporate election.
In exchange people would get to live in a housing project, a small stipend, free tv, etc. and, most importantly, a sense that they were directly participating in something (however they defined it on tv, a conflict, a quest, a crusade) larger than themselves.

The giving of the proxy being itself a kind of reward.

I always though that would never work. People would never go for it. And I believe I was right there. They wouldn't. You couldn't pay that many people that much to make them think they were better off than the other schlubs who weren't taking the deal.
You're talking millions of people turning over their political franchise just to be, or appear to themselves to be, a bit better off, a bit more plugged in.
No way that would work.

535 people though, yeah, you could sucker that many. Don't even have to pass any laws. Just have to block laws trying to stop it. Runs itself really.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2013


The "social contract" really needs to come from society, not at the point of the taxman's gun. Your church wants to take care of old ladies? Great! Have at it. I'll even help, both monetarily and in-kind. But leave Uncle Sam out of the extortion-for-charity business, thanks.

Charitably then, Social Contract is not a contract, per se. it is philosophical framework for formulating and evaluting forms of governance. The theory was particularly in vogue at the time of the American Revolution and the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are both documents precisely modeled on this framework. The intent being actual social contracts instead of handwavy traditions easily usurped by monarchs or religious institutions.

John Rawls was probably the most rigorous and notable social contract theorist of the modern age. Looking at the problem of amendment and extension, Rawls was particularly concerned at developing a theory for fairly evaluating the evolution of the social contract. Evolution being the less disruptive alternative to the Jeffersonian inclination toward revolution and subsequent rewrites.

Rawls is most celebrated for his work developing/extending the concept of the Original Position. Briefly (and greatly simplified), the OP is a shared view in the desirability of a fair distribution of the benefits and responsibilities of an ordered society. From the OP we share a framework that can be leveraged to rationally adjudicate forms and modifications of governance and justice.

Another important extension of the Original Position is the concept of the Veil of Ignorance. Briefly (and again greatly simplified) the VoI is a set of rules that guide our behavior in the OP. The idea being that we will develop the fairest, most just social contract if we put aside any foreknowledge of our current position in society and evaluate any contract based on its affects on all members of that society.

One importantance of social contract theory is in moderating your own expectations of what you, personally, derive from our shared situation. You--possibly not an old lady in need of care--would not normally care whether there is a less preachy way of meeting said needs. However, utilizing the VoI, you might see that perhaps you might care a great deal about alternate means of charity if you were said atheist old lady. You might also weigh what you, as said old lady, desires against you, angry anti-taxer, desires and see that the whole of society might be better off under a contract that allows for a combination of secular, religious, and state-sponsored charity.

If you wanted to sum up Rawls in a single word you could do a lot worse than choose 'empathy'.

So, less charitably then, as said above: not even wrong.

TMYK.
posted by Fezboy! at 1:17 PM on May 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


Anticipating more ossification!
posted by telstar at 2:35 PM on May 3, 2013


Should have specified NEW stuff.
So you would oppose things like the genetic information nondiscrimination act that prevents employers, as well as insurance companies, from discriminating against people based on their genome?

And you don't want them to do anything about internet or cellphone privacy? Or put in place financial regulation after 2008? Or do anything about global warming for that matter?

The problem with that idea is that new things come up, and they need to be dealt with with.

Of course the federal government hasn't actually done anything about electronic privacy, financial regulation, or global warming. (They did a little with financial regulation, which they promptly started trying to undermine)
Why can't gridlock represent the will of the people? There are many of us who would prefer that the federal government stop doing stuff, thanks.
Did you know that sequestration has seriously screwed Head Start? I get that you have a different political orientation than I, but can we agree that giving education to poor kids is a pretty good thing for government to do?
The problem with that argument, though is that Sequestration is "something" rather then "nothing". The purpose was to reduce the deficit. It was an extremely stupid idea, which they knew was stupid, and did anyway in order to force themselves to do something else, which also would have been stupid.

But the problem here is that congress did something rather then them not doing anything.
The first time a Congressman had to deal with a non-gold plated high-deductible low-coverage health insurance policy we'd have national health care passed with sweeping majorities.
Actually, starting soon members of congress and their staffs will be forced to buy insurance on the exchanges setup by Obamacare
I'd rather see individual members of Congress forced to deal with the IRS and all this silly talk about putting those same people in charge of health care would come to an end.
Uh, people who work for the government already get healthcare from the government. So does everyone else who works for the government. So does everyone on Medicare, and the people who do have Medicare tend to really like it.

As far as the IRS goes, if you're dealing with them it's probably because they think you're cheating on your taxes.
In 2007, the author of this article won an award from a pro-labour foundation for his blogging in favour of social justice. He is considered a left-wing author by American standards. Last week, he published an article on how "it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States."
I used to subscribe to that guy's RSS feed, but since he moved over to slate you can't get one just for him. In the past he would probably be considered liberal even by European standards, he considered himself a socialist and wanted high tax rates for the rich and straight up redistribution of wealth. I'm not sure what's up with that, he did write a followup saying that he thought his article didn't do a good job expressing what he actually thought, but he stands by the idea that it's reasonable for poor countries to have lower workplace safety rules. I think that's pretty stupid - especially when it comes to risks you wouldn't expect, like the fact you happen to be working in a structurally unsound building.

posted by delmoi at 7:26 PM on May 3, 2013


It's ridiculous to say that there is partisan gridlock in Washington. There is a fairly narrow subset of issues upon which there is a clear partisan divide, and those issues are loudly debated, but the majority of public policy operates in a bipartisan fashion, and always has, particularly when you consider that 90% of what the federal government does, as opposed to talks about, are a very short list of core missions: collecting taxes and spending them on debt service, the military, social security, and Medicare.

That is just wrong. Judicial appointments are being left vacant because of partisan gridlock. There are more vacancies than ever, nearly 10% (86 out of 874), and they are being left open for far to long. 37 are declared 'emergencies' because they have a 600+ case back-load. Add that to the sequestration that has the courts on furlough a few times a month, and there is a serious problem. Gridlock is literally eroding the judicial system.
posted by Garm at 8:54 PM on May 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's ridiculous to say that there is partisan gridlock in Washington. There is a fairly narrow subset of issues upon which there is a clear partisan divide, and those issues are loudly debated, but the majority of public policy operates in a bipartisan fashion, and always has, particularly when you consider that 90% of what the federal government does, as opposed to talks about, are a very short list of core missions: collecting taxes and spending them on debt service, the military, social security, and Medicare.

The federal government's sub-core mission -- the one that comes before all those ones you mentioned -- is to continue operating. The partisan gridlock in Washington has come how close now to stopping, for however short a time, that very basic mission? Furloughing workers is the most basic failure of the federal government there is. It's the societal equivalent of a coma; there is no such thing as a brief, harmless coma.
posted by Etrigan at 9:31 PM on May 3, 2013


If there's one failure in the Constitution, it's the document's strong preference for a two-party system

It was not designed to prefer a two-party system. The two-party system is, if anything, an accidental bi-product of the constitution.


Man, I have had the hardest time trying to find language to describe what you're talking about here — the difference between what a system was intended/designed to do, and what that particular design necessarily does when actually implemented, the difference between intent and what will inevitably happen. I am certain that there's a totally common word or phrase in English for this, but I'm blanking on what it is. Other than, like, just "irony," or "Murphy's Law."

But for example: One of the plot points in David Foster Wallace's Pale King was a fictional (and short-lived) Illinois state law mandating a graduated progressive sales tax. The cost of purchases under five dollars was taxed at (say) 3.9 percent the cost beyond the first five dollars and 50 dollars at 4.8 percent (say) and so on. The intent of the design was to reduce the inherent regressiveness of sales taxes; the result, as you could guess, was long lines everywhere and a blizzard of paperwork as everyone structured every purchase to be less than five dollars.

Although I trust that the founders actually didn't want a partisan system, from our vantage point it seems that a two-party system is self-apparently inevitable given the Constitution — as inevitable as DFW's fictional Illinoisans structuring their purchases to take advantage of lower sales taxes — given the rules of the game (a first-past-the-post system featuring a nationally elected executive).

Maybe it wasn't obvious then — we have the advantage of living in a world where we've had many, many, many years of experience with political parties much better organized than any of the factions in the british parliament of the time. Nevertheless, I rather wish Thomas Jefferson's friend Condorcet had been able to get a good look at the Constitution; although an average person might not be able to see how and why the document all but specifies a two-party system, he certainly would have.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:07 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


YCTAB: Neither single member districts nor plurality elections are specified in the constitution.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:56 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Maybe it wasn't obvious then

That's pretty much all I meant by "accidental bi-product"; they didn't intend or anticipate the system's bias toward a two-party system--and that bias only exists once the concept of political parties is introduced to the system in the first place. Once you throw parties in the mix, yes, the way the constitution structures our system, it has a bias toward stabilizing at two-parties. But if there were no parties at all, our system would work just fine without them (as it did before the split that led to the two parties in our history in the first place). For all practical purposes, we didn't have two major parties until something like 80 years after the founding, in the 1860s.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:01 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Members of Congress Are Elected to Represent, Not to Get Along

tl;dr: voters are locally focused narrowminded morons. All of them us.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:52 AM on May 7, 2013




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