In the movie Thank You For Smoking, there's a great scene with Nick, the tobacco lobbyist who is the star of the movie, and his son 12-year-old son, Joey. Joey asks Nick for help on an essay his teacher assigned for homework, the topic of which is, "Why is American government the best government in the world?" Nick is taken aback by the essay topic, and decides to challenge the premise of the topic, asking Joey, "Does America have the best government in the world?" I was reminded of this scene when I read Stan Collender's post at Capital Gains and Games about the annual dinner of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:
[The dinner] reminded me of something that, I suspect like most people, I have to be continually reminded about: the budget and fiscal policy are political problems and can only be dealt with through political agreements. There was more analytical firepower gathered at this dinner than may have ever been the case in U.S. history. Yet the more we talked, the more I realized that the general agreement that seemed to exist about U.S. fiscal policy being "unsustainable" . . . was also accompanied by an unstated understanding that there was absolutely no agreement among the numbers crunchers about how best to deal with it. This is important if you're trying to determine if, when, and how the budget will be tackled by Washington. The answer clearly is...slowly. There is and will be no silver bullet or magic elixir and, unless something like another tech boom develops, no sudden huge improvement will occur.American democracy, for all its benefits, still lacks the ability to effectively and consistently turn what all the experts believe to be good policy into actual legislation. Obviously, there will always be some experts who disagree about what constitutes "good policy" on every issue, and I'm not saying that we should adopt every policy that a bare majority of experts agree on, especially when there is legitimate debate among the experts. But there are some issues -- like the federal budget deficit -- where there is an overwhelming consensus among the experts that the government is harming itself and the voters. The problem is, even though the U.S. government is a representative democracy, we can't get the representatives to act in their constituents' interests. It's hardly news that politicians don't always act in their constituents' and the nation's interests, but that's the point: it's been going on for so long that the problem seems endemic to American democracy. We've been trying to rid ourselves of the dysfunctional aspect of democracy for years, by improving voting rights, campaign finance reform, etc., but to no avail. At some point, we have to ask ourselves, is American democracy our best option? Would parliamentary democracy do a better job of turning a consensus among experts on what constitutes good policy into actual legislation? If not, is there an as-yet-untried form of democracy that would be better? I think there's an unfortunate tendency to try to improve our government within the confines of our existing system of American democracy. If we determined that the problem is two-year terms for Congressman, or the lack of proportional representation in the Senate, does anyone honestly think we would ever do something about it? Of course not. Any proposal to change something like that would be immediately labeled an insult to the Founding Fathers. Any politician who even brought it up would be deemed unpatriotic and run out of town on a rail. American democracy, it seems, stifles debate about....American democracy. And in the long-run, that can't be good.