This is the end of the year and a good time to take stock of the sorry state of politics in Washington after another year of gridlock.
Those of us who have been observing politics in Washington over the past few years would not have been surprised at the shutdown of the government.
What we have in Washington now is an Executive and a House of Representatives that are controlled by different parties that are sparring with each other and in the case of the latter control resides in a party that is divided against itself in nothing short of a civil war.
In the House, on one side there are the right wing extremists (or tea party caucus) who are winning out against the establishment Republicans in their quest to control the Republican agenda and obstruct the President even if it hurts the country.
The problem is that our political system has fallen prey to corporate interests and partisan lobbying and our leaders use issues as hostage to get what they want. Usually this satisfies only narrow interests and not the common good and our democracy gets eroded.
For example, although polls show that the majority of people want background checks on gun ownership our leaders seem helpless to act because of the big money that the gun lobby can splash around on Capitol Hill. In the meantime we limp from one gun tragedy to another; with every incident we mourn, we make speeches and then it’s back to business as usual until the next time.
Even when the will of the majority is clear the minority can highjack the system and stall progress.
The second part of the problem is systemic i.e. in a presidential system government can only work if the executive and the legislature work together as is happening in Mexico. But there is a problem if both institutions are controlled by different parties. It is hard to get people who have different political philosophies to agree on anything and even if they do, we have ‘government by compromise’ and end up with watered down legislation like the Affordable Care Act which leaves 10 million people uninsured and does not even have a public option.
Today the favorability rating of our President and the Congress are at record lows as it no longer seems possible in our system to get anything done and thus to progress as we once did.
THE EFFECTS OF GRIDLOCK
The resulting shutdown of the government for 16 days in October caused a loss to the economy of $23 billion, 800,000 federal workers furloughed and left the country on the brink of defaulting on its debts and risking another downgrading of our creditworthiness. The debt crisis spurred the Chinese, our main competitor, to call for a ‘de-Americanized’ world.
While our leaders squabble and struggle under the weight of partisan politics China is expanding its influence across the whole planet.
Chinese overseas investments are rapidly increasing. As of 2011 China’s outward foreign direct investments topped $60 billion annually and spread across 132 countries and regions (How are Chinese Overseas Investments affecting the Environment? By Denise Leung, May 9, 2013). But that is not all.
This expansion has reached our shores. Chinese acquisition of US businesses is on track to set a record this year. For example, The Chinese bought out Smithfield Foods (largest pork producer) with facilities in 26 states and AMC entertainment (one of the largest movie theater chains). Chinese companies are setting up roots mainly in new vehicle technology in Detroit and in energy resources in Tennessee and Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group Inc. has opened a plant in Alabama (A Little Known Reality, Guest Post, by Michael Snyder,June 8, 2013). Just to name a few.
They are also outperforming us in leading key sectors. They are the leading trading nation, the largest new car market, the leading gold, wind and solar energy producer, the leading manufacturer of goods and they produce more than twice as many autos, 3 times as much coal and 11 times as much steel as the US; they even build cities in other countries like Belarus (A Little Known Reality, etc.).
THE PEOPLES’ CHOICE
In a free society like ours people reap the rewards of their choices. Bad choices lead to bad results. By the same token, the solutions lie in the hands of the people.
The time is well overdue when new choices need to be made and positive action must replace debate. But in order to reform our political system we must first resolve 3 fundamental issues:-
(a) Government v Private Sector– we need to decide what type of society we want. Do we want one in which there is no government or government is so insignificant that everything is left to the vagaries of the free market? Should the belief system be that you have to lift yourself up by your own boot straps and if you fall behind you are like a lion in a pride who has been injured and left behind to become the prey?
Or do we prefer a system in which there is a role for government to provide the basics of life that the free market won’t provide like affordable education, housing and healthcare for all, and the support systems to help those who fall behind and need help? Do we prefer a society that is free of the old notions that people are poor or unemployed because they are lazy and don’t want to work?
(b) Presidential v Parliamentary type Democracy– we have to make a choice between keeping the presidential system in its present form or replacing it with a system where we elect a legislature and the party that wins the most seats gets to form the government. If the winner is not responsive to the people who elected them, the people can vote them out at the next election. No excuses.
(c) Lastly, Military Budget v Other Priorities – we need to decide whether we want to continue to spend as we did in 2012 37% of taxpayers’ money on war and the remaining 63% on other priorities such as poverty reduction, healthcare, the environment, and education. This at a time of economic crisis when there are cuts in public spending except defense. This is taxpayers’ money but many studies and polls show that military spending is one of the last things on the minds of the American people (Global Issues, World Military Spending by Anup Shah, June 30, 2013).
There are also supplemental issues that need to be resolved. We need a system of public education to teach people about their interests and to get them more involved in the political system especially in the selection of election candidates. Laws are also needed to rid the system of big money, lobbying, professional action committees (PACs) and to abolish Citizens United that provides for unlimited funding of election campaigns. An alternative is to have public funding of elections to prevent our leaders from becoming beholden to financial interests.
Most of these issues are hot topics of debate and we seem to just rehash them over and over even in the cases after we get a final resolution. For example, the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress, upheld by the US Supreme Court, voted on in the 2012 election and still endless hours are wasted arguing over it while serious issues like unemployment, global warming, poverty and inequality are ignored as if they do not exist.
My suggestion is that it is time to revise our priorities by putting these issues on a ballot and let the people decide in a national referendum. Whatever they decide will become the ground rules on which we can move on.
Our present dysfunction in government cannot be solved by merely changing the occupants of the White House and Congress. That has been tried many times before and not worked. We need to restore real democracy by structuring the system so that our elected leaders will be more responsive to the people who elected them and not those who funded them.
Victor A Dixon
December 31, 2013