As elected leaders of both parties fail to reach any of their stated goals, and as the government drifts towards default, we voters gnash our teeth. We blame the opposing party for its intransigence, and/or our own party for its weakness. In doing so, we miss a fundamental lesson of this moment: that the rules of our democracy are ill-suited to conditions of scarcity.
When budgets rise, we generally believe in sharing the benefits of increased wealth. Politicians argue over who gets the most, but there is wide consensus that all constituencies should get some part of the increase. In such times, our political system operates relatively smoothly to apportion – fairly or not — the spoils of growth.
But when budgets must be cut as resources become scarce, our rules are different, and our results are dysfunctional. Rather than spreading sacrifice broadly, we scramble to target some “other” constituency, in a ritualized search for weak links reminiscent of “Survivor.” Every interest group mobilizes in self-defense, and competing visions of the public interest become distorted by that lens. Our body politic becomes paralyzed, unable even to heave its carcass off the tracks as the train of financial disaster screams in.
I would like to see us try something new. Let’s impose across-the-board spending cuts, and across-the-board revenue increases, in exactly the same percentage across all taxpayer groups and in every area of government, to achieve the $4 trillion deficit reduction that both parties seem to think is desirable. We could agree that this is the time for ALL taxpayers to share sacrifice by paying more, and for ALL areas of government, regardless of priority, to operate with less. We would thus apply some approximation of the norms that we use in times of growth to our present circumstances of contraction.
Simplistic? Yes – but preferable to our “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle of failure, blame, and paralysis.