What’s gone wrong in Washington?


Lincoln, image by Derek Bacon for The Economist (2010)

Image by Derek Bacon, copyright The Economist 2010

Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, Illinois, on ground often trod by Abraham Lincoln.  As did Teddy Roosevelt, Obama studies Lincoln’s life and career, and presidency.  We know he devoured Team of Rivals, Doris Kearn Goodwin’s detailed history of Lincoln’s high-powered cabinet, all of who came to respect his leadership, and most to call him friend.

The Economist scores with another astonishing graphic for the cover of the print edition covering the week of February 18 — Lincoln’s exasperation apparent (image at right).

Is that all?

Again I lament not having an AP government class at the moment.  What an opening for discussion we have in Washington follies of the moment.  The story accompanying the graphic, plus an editorial that takes the Milquetoast way out — ‘Obama needs to try harder’ – poses questions we do need to explore, and which would be great in an AP classroom.

ACCORDING to Paul Krugman, the winner of a Nobel prize for economics and a columnist for the New York Times, modern America is much like 18th-century Poland. On his telling, Poland was rendered largely ungovernable by the parliament’s requirement for unanimity, and disappeared as a country for more than a century. James Fallows, after several years in China as a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote on his return that he found in America a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent and “a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke”. Tom Friedman, another columnist for the New York Times, reported from the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last month that he had never before heard people abroad talking about “political instability” in America. But these days he did.

The growing idea among influential pundits that America is “ungovernable” is being driven in large part by Barack Obama’s failure so far to pass some of the main laws he wants to. And it is, indeed, a puzzle. Here, after all, is a president who only just over a year ago won a handsome mandate: 53% of the popular vote and big majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He bounded into office with a mountainous agenda, including plans to overhaul America’s health-care system and cut its greenhouse emissions. He seemed until quite recently to be doing reasonably well. In a folksy December interview with Oprah Winfrey he awarded himself “a good, solid B-plus”.

Is America now ungovernable?  What are the limits of a federal system, and have the states capitulated too much power to Washington?  Is anything else feasible with our economy in the mess it’s in?

I can imagine a discussion of the limits of the Articles of Confederation to start, noting the requirement of unanimity from the states to do anything major — and how that hamstrung the growth of America until George Washington pushed Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to change things.  Washington’s goals were only partly noble, to see a new, unified nation.  That unified nation he saw as necessary to open settlement of the Ohio Valley, where Washington had several thousand acres of land he couldn’t sell until settlers moved in.

How does the current set of impasses affect business?  Consider any small business, or big business, which offers health care plans to its employees.  Health reform is stalled — a Blue Cross affiliate in California raised rates by nearly 40%.  Health care is the one section of the economy where growth — meaning costs — grew through the depths of our financial difficulties in 2008 and 2009.  The need should be clear, but there are blocks to getting anything done about fixing the system.

Or consider international affairs.  Pentagon analysts worry about governmental instability created by the effects of global warming — drought, weather disaster, shifting crop yields (up in a few places, dramatically down where a few billion people live).  Thieves stole e-mails from the scientists studying the issue, and subsequent propaganda based on the theft alone has stalled climate talks, worldwide, giving a huge economic advantage to China and India.

What should be the role of government regulation for clean air?  Is the Clean Air Act sufficient? (Texas initiated suit against the federal government last week, claiming that the science behind reducing air pollution is wrong, a suit given as a gift to Texas’s major industries, some of which depend on the ability to dump garbage in the air with impunity.)

Is the problem more organically rooted in our inability to defeat incumbents in Congress? 2010 is a Census year — we count Americans to see how many representatives there should be for each state in the House of Represtentatives.  The bitter redistricting fights will come in state legislatures next year.  Can we save the system when politicians design seats more to secure a safe majority for their own party, rather than to see that every American is adequately represented?

What about media?  Traditionally newspapers, aided by television, played the watchdog role on Washington politicians.  Americans aren’t reading newspapers much, anymore.  News holes shrink, and serious reporting on issues goes away.  Can an open democracy survive without healthy newspapers?  And if not, who can do what about it?

Go to The Economist and check out the stories (better if you’re a subscriber — the stories usually go away for non-paying browsers after a few days).  What can you do with them in the classroom?

What do you think?  What’s gone wrong in Washington?

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One Response to What’s gone wrong in Washington?

  1. bknister says:

    You can have all the healthy newspapers you want. If no one any longer reads (so says Steve Jobs), what difference can it make? How many voters do you think give a rap that Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize? What instead seems to be happening is that,courtesy of cable, an entertainment model now forms the template that shapes whatever is offered to viewers as news. And since the beast must be fed 24/7, what is worthy becomes equal to what is not–Haiti followed by “retarded” followed by teabags followed by Tiger. And also thanks to cable, you no longer have to listen to anything you don’t already agree with.

    Like

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