This is the sort of post I hate to write – one lacking a specific topic or issue to tie it together and to make my meaning plain. But I've been asked to address some of these issues by a few of the members of our community, so I'll do my best. Thank you in advance for your patience and attention.
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.
Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative "earmarks," and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern "demosclerosis," in a book of that name. He defined the problem as "government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt," a process "like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years."
...On rereading Mancur Olson’s book now, I was struck by its relative innocence. Thinking as an economist, Olson regarded the worst outcome as an America that was poorer than it could otherwise be. But since the time of his book, the gospel of "adapt or die" has spread from West Point to the corporate world (by chance, Olson’s Rise and Decline was published within weeks of the hugely influential business book In Search of Excellence ), with the idea that rigid institutions inevitably fail. "I don’t think that America’s political system is equal to the tasks before us," Dick Lamm, a former three-term governor of Colorado, told me in Denver. "It is interesting that in 1900 there were very few democracies and now there are a lot, but they’re nearly all parliamentary democracies. I’m not sure we picked the right form. Ours is great for distributing benefits but has become weak at facing problems. I know the power of American rejuvenation, but if I had to bet, it would be 60–40 that we’re in a cycle of decline."
The above quote is from James Fallows' current cover story for The Atlantic, entitled "How America Can Rise Again."
While at all times, our movement is plagued by disagreement and discontent, now is a particularly trying time for us. On the electoral front, we have achieved significant victories; elected Barack Obama President, made a success of the Fifty State Strategy, changed the way Democratic candidates raise funds and brought solid Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. But while we have scored significant political victories, our policy victories feel, to many if not most of us, to be woefully insufficient.
To be sure, we are making progress. We should not forget the darkness of the recent past when looking at where we are now. Nor should we forget the immense difficulties that the Bush legacy of recession, war, inequality and corruption have made to the implementation of optimal policies. But while we may disagree on whether or not it made sense to expect better policy from President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, one thing should be evident to each and every one of us: we deserve better. America deserves better.
So why aren't we getting it?
One reason which is all too often discounted is because we have enemies. We are beset by powerful, smart, savvy opponents who absolutely will not go quietly. The policies of the Republican party may be stupid, but the leaders of the party are not, and they are working their asses off to defeat us. The plutocrats and the corporations they control are adept at besting their competition by whatever means they can find. As we change the political landscape, they will adapt and find new ways to thwart our attempts to dethrone them. Even if we do our very best, we shall experience defeats at their hands.
We also have to contend with the fact that we are being deceived by charlatans. Barack Obama is, in my opinion, a good man and a good President. He is also, in my opinion and experience, a politician who like the overwhelming majority of his breed can and will (and has) violate the promises he made while campaigning for our votes and use to his advantage inspirational speech where he has no inspirational intentions. Worse still, both his coterie and our party are riddled with out-and-out hucksters who will deceive and betray us and our causes for their own gain. This we have a responsibility to expose and decry, for unchastened and concealed they will do no end of harm to our interests. To do otherwise, to cover-up or downplay the misdeeds of those who bear our standard in the hopes that this will deny ammunition to our opponents is to be the lapdog of our leaders.
But perhaps most importantly, we have to face the problems set forth by Mr. Fallows in the quoted passage above. Our government is sclerous and unyielding to the will of those whom it governs. We are a nation of three hundred million who are governed by five hundred and thirty six representatives. That number has been the same since 1961, and the House of Representatives has not increased since 1913. In 1913, the population of the United States was ninety-two million; since 1961, the five hundred thirty-five members of Congress now represent one hundred thirty million more Americans. These changes in the proportion of representatives to citizens cause a shift in power; the representatives have more, and the citizens less.
Not only do the same number of representatives have far more citizens to represent, but they have a much larger government to run. In 1913, the Federal government collected $714,000,000 in taxes and had a budget of $715,000,000. In 1961, when the Senate settled on 100 members, the Federal government collected $94,388,000,000 and spent $97,723,000,000. In 2010, the Federal government is expected to collect $2,077,685,000,000 and spend $2,537,259,000,000. The same number of elected officials are now expected to collect and spend over two trillion more dollars than their counterparts when their number was fixed, 3548 times the amount of money spent in 1913 and 26 times the amount spent in 1961.
In addition to having to represent many more Americans than their predecessors and having to spend vastly more as well, the elected representatives of the American people at the Federal level have to do so with barely any increase in staff. In 1961, when the Senate reached one hundred members, the Federal government employed 2,515,000 American civilians (excluding the Postal Service); by 2004, that number had only increased to 2,714,000. An increase of only one hundred ninty nine thousand Federal employees are tasked with running a government spending over two trillion more dollars (it bears mentioning that these numbers are not adjusted for inflation).
Simply put, our Federal government, both our elected representatives and the civilians who work for them, are now responsible for governing over one hundred million more people and spending over two trillion more dollars, while the number of people who compose our government has not meaningfully increased in half a century. Accordingly, the balance of power between the Federal government and the citizens who they represent has changed dramatically. The government has its power greatly increased in the hands of an ever smaller fraction of our population, and the voice of each individual citizen is always growing more indistinguishable to the ears of power. And even the most well-intentioned of our elected representatives, if these tasks were divided equally among them, would struggle to represent over half a million Americans and properly oversee the spending of over $3.5 billion dollars apiece.
We face daunting difficulties, from both those who oppose us and our hopes for our nation, and from the treachery and simple venality of those who bear our standard. But those difficulties can not and must not blind us to the failure of our government to adapt to a changing role and a growing nation. A fundamental part of achieving a government that works for us is making sure that we have a government that works.
In light of these problems, I have two suggestions of policies that should be pursued that will begin to address the issues.
- Our Federal government is badly understaffed in many essential areas. Meanwhile, our nation is suffering from historically high unemployment rates, and proposals for the government to spur job creation will be part of the agenda in the coming year. We should press for a major part of a future jobs bill to be a large increase in the number of new Federal employees. Based on a first approximation, back of the envelope calculation, I believe we should have a target of approximately 500,000 new civilian employees of the Federal government.
- In three years, we will have had a House of Representatives with 435 members for one hundred years. I propose that we initiate a grassroots campaign to increase the total number of Representatives in 2013. I further propose that the best way to do this is to campaign for a 100% increase in the House, from 435 to 870, dividing each Congressional district into two. I believe this is the simplest and most equitable way to increase the size of the House without incurring any penalty to the people of any state. This will provide us with many practical advantages, from shifting back some measure of power from the Congress to the electorate to providing enough Representatives to oversee the vast Federal government. This will be a very difficult task to achieve, as it is against the personal interest of every current member of Congress. But I believe that it is a vital, perhaps essential, step towards bringing our government back to the people of the United States.