Is America Ungovernable?

Otto von Bismark, the 19th century Iron Chancellor and architect of modern Germany, once remarked that “If you like law and sausages, you shouldn't watch either being made.” One could observe that this is not quite correct; the process of stuffing offal into sausage skins is far less disgusting than that of stuffing bribes into legislators. Still, statute law will always be a matter of negotiations between those who have an interest in the bill at issue. Thus it has always been, and thus it will always be. In itself, this is not too bad; everybody should have a voice in drafting legislation, and compromise, while cumbersome, is likely to be better on the whole.

Democracy is supposed to solve the problem by giving everyone a voice in the process. And this would certainly be true, if we were speaking of a local assembly. But in a nation of 300 million plus, it can't be true; the very size limits the number of voices that can be heard. Hence, a “place at the table” becomes a scarce commodity, and like all scarce commodities it has a market price, a price that prices the public out of the process; as the nation grows, the size of the legislative “table” shrinks; there aren't enough places to go around, and the form of democracy is easily converted into the substance of oligarchy. But even at the local level, government must be guided by some notion of the common good, even when the parties are seeking their own interests. But as the cost of participation rises, this becomes less possible.

Think on this: A congressional race can easily cost $1,000,000 but the congressman is in office for only 730 days. That means he must raise $1,370 for each and every day he is in office, weekends, Christmas, Easter, and Flag Day included. And now consider that this office represents but 1/435th of ½ of 1/3rd of the Federal power. When you do math, enormous sums of money are involved, and there are limited sources for that kind of money. The money appears as a “donation,” but it is in fact a purchase, an investment, and the investors expect a decent return on their money. Or rather, an indecent return.

What kind of returns? Well, when the prize is the public purse, the rewards are unlimited, far higher than one could possibly achieve from making things or providing a service. Thus we read with no surprise Gretchen Morgenson's column in the New York Times that the bill to extend unemployment benefits for another 20 weeks also includes a $33 billion dollar gift to businesses, especially the home builders, whose overbuilding is part and parcel of the current crises. These businesses will be allowed to offset their 2008/9 losses against profits going back to 2004, and hence receive huge refund checks from the Treasury. According to Ms. Morgenson, Pulte homes will reap $450 million, Hovanian $250 million, Standard Pacific $80 million, while a Beazar Homes will get a measly $50 million.

How much did it cost them to get these rewards? Gretchen counts their costs:

Securing this tax break was a top priority for home builders, lobbying records show. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that through Oct. 26 of this year, home builders paid $6 million to their lobbyists. Last year, the industry spent $8.2 million lobbying. Much of this year’s lobbying expenditures were focused on arguing for the tax loss carry-forward, documents show. Among individual companies, Lennar spent $240,000 lobbying while companies affiliated with Hovnanian Enterprises spent $222,000. Pulte Homes spent $210,000 this year. That’s some return on investment. After spending its $210,000, Pulte will receive $450 million in refunds. And Hovnanian, after spending its $222,000, will get as much as $275 million.

Again, none of this surprises us, no matter how much it may sicken us. But the raid on the public purse is not half as problematic as the disappearance of the common good in government. The whole purpose of government is to look towards the common good, however imperfectly; when governments lose this function, they gradually cease to function.

I had some hopes for Obama. Not so much for his politics—certainly not that—but for his fund-raising. He was able to raise enough on-line to make a credible candidacy. He was thus in a position to establish an independent force in American politics. But in the end, he accepted more corporate money than any of his rivals. In that success was his failure.

Obama will fail. Indeed, he has already failed. I believe he failed before he started, as soon as he became dependent on big money. The biggest sign of that failure was his appointment of Timothy Geithner to the Treasury. Geithner was President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and the person more than any other responsible for the AIG bailout, which was shameful. His is Big Money's man in Washington, one of many such men.

The Health Care Bill is a perfect example of the process. Starting with decent motives, whether one agrees with them or not, it becomes merely a series of subsidies to established monopolies. Big Pharma is on board, of course. In exchange for removing any threat of public control of prices, they voluntarily agreed to lower their prices by $80 billion over ten years. But first they raised the prices by 9%. Obama was totally out-maneuvered by them. They will end up with a huge public subsidy. The AMA, the AARP, and most other big players are on board, all for the same reasons. The only holdout is the insurance industry. They will get on board once the public option disappears; they like the prospect of 30 million new customers supported by the government.

But the bill will not fix any of the problems because it does not address them. It is the current system, only more so, and with more public money going to an elite group. It will hasten the collapse of the health system. The same failures are evident in the bailouts and in the stimulus package. Even the administration's best impulses make them look ridiculous, as with the effort to make the spending transparent by posting it on a website, along with bogus estimates of the number of jobs created.

There is no chance, I suspect, that things will get better in time for the 2010 elections, and by 2012 the Republican Party will give us another Bush, or Palin, or Cheney to rule. But none of them will rule anymore than Obama does. They will campaign to run the country, only to find upon victory that the country runs them, or rather that small slice of the country that controls the political funding. While this is profitable in the short run, it is disaster in the long, and the long is about to overtake the short; without some notion of the common good, the government collapses.

Von Bismark understood how laws were made, but being a good aristocrat, he retained some notions of the common good. After the revolutions of 1848, he understood that new terms would have to be negotiated between the classes, if Germany were to survive. Even though he was a monarchist and no supporter of democracy, nevertheless he accomplished great social reforms in the 1880's, reforms that included health insurance, Accident insurance, and old-age pensions. In doing so, he laid the foundations of the modern European states. He gave the powers their due, simply because they were powerful. But for all his “blood and iron” talk, he did have a notion of the common good. He could actually govern.

We cannot. We have no real place at the table, a table that is itself shrinking, even as our debts grow. If you want to see the future of America, look at Europe of the 1920's and 30's.


Chris Campbell Friday, November 20, 2009 at 1:29:00 PM CST  

Thankfully, I do not vote Deomocrat and Republican that much, especially national level. I agree with what John said in his article " Distributivism and Catholic Social Teaching" about third parties and the unfair advantages they have to overcome.

I think the fall is now inevitable.....

It is up to use to promote a way to survive and eventually, build back some of society...we will all be Distributists in the end, some may not like it, but it is going to happen.....

AT,  Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 5:25:00 AM CST  

Of course America is ungovernable. Isn't that a major reason for distributism and subsidiarity?

It should be clear to all that the growth of government is directly proportional to its failure to work.

Besorge Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 4:14:00 PM CST  

Well, let's hope we get our ideas out before these people do.

In the United States, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, presided over by Mr. E. P. Peacock, with many affiliated local societies, has for its object the separation of Church and State, and for its platform the nine demands of Liberalism, namely:

-that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation;
-that the employment of chaplains in Congress, in state legislatures, in the army and navy, and in prisons, asylums, and all institutions supported by public money, shall be discontinued, and that all religious services maintained by national, state, or municipal governments shall be abolished;
-that all public appropriations for educational and charitable institutions of a sectarian character shall cease;
-that, while advocating the loftiest instruction in morals and the inculcation of the strictest uprightness of conduct, religious teaching and the use of the Bible for religious purposes in public schools shall be prohibited;
-that the appointment by the President of the United States and the governors of the various states of religious festivals, fasts, and days of prayer and thanksgiving shall be discontinued;
-that the theological oath in the courts and in other departments of government shall be abolished, and simple affirmation under the pains and penalties of perjury, established in its stead;
-that all laws directly or indirectly enforcing in any degree the religious and theological dogma of Sunday or Sabbath observance shall be repealed;
-that all laws looking to the enforcement of Christian morality as such shall be abrogated, and that all laws shall be conformed to the requirements of natural morality, equal rights and impartial justice;
-that, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the several states, no special privileges or advantages shall be conceded to Christianity or any other religion; that our entire political system shall be conducted and administered on a purely secular basis; and that whatever changes are necessary to this end shall be consistently, unflinchingly, and promptly made.

Jeremiah Whitmoore Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 9:12:00 PM CST  

Mr. Medaille,

A fine piece.

We are indeed headed towards the fate of the Weimer Republic.

Septeus7,  Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 9:19:00 PM CST  

America is ungovernable because it's culture doesn't permit or produce the kind of leadership and moral courage needed to challenge the finance oligarchs and allow people take political action for social justice and self-government.

No moral person wants to be a part of this system but paradoxically without moral leadership there is no way out of the situation.

Eric J. Peet Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 2:30:00 AM CST  

Great essay. De Toqueville said something to the effect that large nations remain strong, while small ones remain happier. The Church, in her wisdom, supports subsidiarity as a means to a happy state.

As it is, the reality in our country today is one of big government, and big business; everyday the two get closer and closer.

I agree with you that creating a viable third party is going to be a rough road to travel.

Perhaps the answer lies in creating a type of "parallel" community, or communities espousing Catholic distributist beliefs. People are doing amazing things with various cooperative enterprises and even social credit systems at a small level.

This could then grow to create a more cohesive base for a third party of this type to platform from.

In other words, the growth of a third party would have to begin at a very micro level.

life insurance rbc Friday, November 27, 2009 at 8:37:00 AM CST  

Hi. I quite agree that the US is ungovernable. No wonder if we have a look at the administrators who lead the country. Unfortunately, it seems that honesty was exchanged for money and comfortable living.
Take care,

Chris Campbell Monday, November 30, 2009 at 7:18:00 AM CST  


I agree with your comments, but sadly, in every eelction 99% of voters vote either "D" or "R" and despite their grumblings are not willing to work for aor pay the price to build a 3rd party.I myself for 3 1/2 yrs was chairman of the Constitution Party in NC. A lot of "we like what your Party stands for, but cant risk losing this election to ______(fill in name of boogeyman)"

Anonymous,  Monday, November 30, 2009 at 8:04:00 AM CST  

"A congressional race can easily cost $1,000,000 but the congressman is in office for only 730 days. That means he must raise $1,370 for each and every day he is in office, weekends, Christmas, Easter, and Flag Day included."

It's worse than that...

Uncle Jay Explains Congress

monica Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 7:53:00 PM CST  

As of now, America is ungovernable...looking at the politicians who are leading this country to nowhere, what else can we say!

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