“That Used to Be Us: Part IV–Political Failure” (back to our staff reading)

Back to our staff reading–this is Part IV of fives parts of That Used to Be Us. 

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV: Political Failure

No one ever admits they do anything wrong. At least not on Capitol Hill.

Part IV starts out with several stories of people using ‘newspeak’ with Congress, of saying they want to look forward to the future and not talk about the past—sports stars like Mark McGwire, Wall Street stars like Lloyd Blankfein, once chief executive of Goldman Sachs.

However, it is the American people who are taken to task here because we knew what we agreed to when we went to war on math and physics. We jumped into The Great Recession fighting two wars in the Middle East and not only failed to raise the taxes to pay for them, but we cut taxes. All of our artificially-created wealth disappeared. We allowed educational attainment to plunge. We didn’t keep up the country’s infrastructure. We have a brain drain because we are shutting our doors to immigrants. We don’t spend money on projects for energy breakthroughs—research and development has decreased as a fraction of the GDP by 60% in 40 years.

What we do regulate has adverse consequences. What we don’t regulate has adverse consequences.

Income inequality has become so great that it has thwarted collective action for public good. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph E. Stiglitz states that the top 1% (in income) of Americans takes home 25% of total of America’s income. In terms of wealth, they control 40%. While middle class income has fallen over the last ten years, for those in the top 1% it has increased 18%.

This situation leads to the wealthy opting out of paying for public goods. They don’t need those public goods because they have their own ‘subsociety’ (country clubs=parks, private schools, private jets, etc.)

The US overestimated the challenge posed by 9/11 and spent on Middle Eastern countries when the real challenge is from Asia and ‘winning’ countries. (Both authors supported the war in Iraq, so they discuss what they got right and what they underestimated.)

While the country appears to be split on opposite poles of the political spectrum, the authors make the case that politicians are the ones who are split, but that Americans are closer to the center than the people they elect to office. According to Morris Fiorina, political scientist and author, “Publicly available databases show that the culture war script embraced by journalists and politicos lies somewhere between simple exaggeration and sheer nonsense.” One reason we elect political purists is as a result of gerrymandering.

We need to stop bouncing back and forth between extreme party positions and accept compromise.

The authors discuss lobbying, lobbyists—what they do and how they do it. (This section would actually be very interesting for students.) An increase in lobbyists affects the country’s growth—interest groups, in lobbying on their own behalf, are, according to Mancur Olson (economist) “overwhelmingly oriented to struggle over the distribution of income and wealth rather than to the production of additional output.” This slows down society’s ability to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources for changing conditions. Some examples of such lobbying are given—the fossil fuel lobby (oil and coal), AARP, etc. (“While reducing Social Security and Medicare may be unfair to older Americans, under-investing in education is harmful to everyone. In this sense, entitlements serve a special interest, while education serves in the national interest. … A dollar wisely invested in early education can do far more to meet the challenges of the world we are living in than a dollar spent on a senior citizen, no matter how deserving he or she may be.”)

The discussion of politics continues with the results of the Citizens United case which struck down the law restricting corporate campaign contributions. Senator Evan Bayh is quoted as saying that hundreds of millions of dollars will be the secret money influencing the elections of the highest offices in the land. Every politician will need a secret group to fight the money of the opponent’s secret group. The authors predict that Congress will simply become a fundraising organization.

Friedman and Mandelbaum turn their attention to media, especially talk radio and partisan political television programming. They feel that ‘narrowcasting’—targeting one end of the political spectrum and then reinforcing the opinions of those in that demographic—contributes to the country’s problems. Having politicians pay attention to what the other guys (even bloggers) say about them is too distracting. In addition, narrowcasters feed their audiences lots of misinformation. Although that misinformation will be corrected, it will happen in another venue, so that the target audience never learns of the correction and believes what it is fed. “’If Walter Cronkite were to be resurrected, nobody would hire him, let alone listen to him.’” (Robert Bennett)

The really frightening part of all this for the rest of the country is that they could end up like California—in deep debt with a crummy educational system—all because of political failure. The state has refused to take collective action to solve its problems and the country needs to see that it will be a ‘California’ if it refuses collective action as well.

The final discussion of Part IV is about the erosion of traditional American values. We don’t have a shared sense of national purpose. In financial markets, we work on the ‘I’ll be gone before this thing blows up’ model. The Boomer generation is blamed for this. (Greatest Generation=sustainable outlook. Boomers=emphasis on short term.) Authority has declined and students don’t accept honest feedback. We are all cynical rather than (healthily) skeptical.

George W, Bush takes a hit for the dissolution of collective purpose. After 9/11, he refused to rally Americans to any collective action (think WW II rationing or a gas tax—‘patriot tax.’) The one place where authority is still respected and earned is the military. (Victoria’s aside: for an interesting/divergent view on this, read War by Sebastian Junger.) We should be willing to pay a war tax, just as previous generations paid for their wars. We should be able to do inspirational things, as were done in the middle twentieth century (e.g., Peace Corps).


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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