We could correct all these problems—and that is the heart of the problem. America still has the means to address nearly any of its structural weaknesses. Yes, the problems are intellectually and politically complicated: energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. But they are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years, and today no other country comes close to the United States in having the surplus money, technology, and attention to apply to the tasks. (China? Remember, most people there still live on subsistence farms.) First with Iraq and now with Afghanistan, the U.S. has in the past decade committed $1 trillion to the cause of entirely remaking a society. We know that such an investment could happen here—but we also know that it won’t.
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.”
We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson’s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson’s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque—and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it’s unchangeable. Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the “saucer” George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might “cool,” into a deep freeze and a dead weight.
The Senate’s then-famous “Gang of Six,” which controlled crucial aspects of last year’s proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states—which together account for 20 of the Senate’s 100 votes.) “The Senate is full of ‘rotten boroughs,’” said James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, referring to the underpopulated constituencies in Parliament before the British reforms of 1832. “We’d be better off with a House of Lords.”
The decades-long bipartisan conspiracy to gerrymander both state and federal electoral districts doesn’t help. More and more legislative seats are “safe” for one party or the other; fewer and fewer politicians have any reason to appeal to the center or to the other side. In a National Affairs article, “Who Killed California?,” Troy Senik pointed out that 153 state or federal positions in California were at stake in the 2004 election. Not a single one changed party. This was an early and extreme illustration of a national trend.
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.”
What I have been calling “going to hell” really means a failure to adapt: increasing difficulty in focusing on issues beyond the immediate news cycle, and an increasing gap between the real challenges and opportunities of the time and our attention, resources, and best efforts. Here are symptoms people have mentioned to me:
• In their book on effective government, William Eggers and John O’Leary quote a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Michael Keeley, on why the city is out of control. “Think of city government as a big bus,” he told them. “The bus is divided into different sections with different constituencies: labor, the city council, the mayor, interest groups, and contractors. Every seat is equipped with a brake, so lots of people can stop the bus anytime. The problem is that this makes the bus undrivable.”
For that same book, Eggers and O’Leary surveyed members of the National Academy of Public Administration, a counterpart of the National Academy of Sciences for public managers. Sixty-eight percent of those who responded said that the government was “less likely to successfully execute projects than at any time in the past.”
• Kevin Starr, author of an acclaimed multivolume history of California politics and culture, told me that through the 1960s, the state’s public culture was dedicated to the idea that big things could be done. “The water plan, the freeways, the universities—it was all supposed to be the greatest in the history of the human race,” he said. “It was envisioned as a higher-ed utopia. Whether you wanted to be a nuclear physicist or a beautician, the state would help get you there.” Now, as he and countless others point out, California’s system has been engineered to ensure that nothing can be done. Through ballot measures, California’s electorate votes itself increasing benefits; through other ballot measures, the public limits taxes to pay for them. Harold Varmus won his Nobel Prize for work done at UC San Francisco and still owns a house in the Bay Area. He says that thanks to California’s famous Proposition 13, which has limited property taxes over the past 30 years, his annual taxes in California are about $600—one-twentieth of what they are for a similar property in New York.
The American Society of Civil Engineers prepares a “report card” on the state of America’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, etc. In the latest version, the overall “GPA” for the United States was D, and the cost of bringing all systems up to adequacy was estimated at $2.2 trillion over the next five years, or twice as much as is now budgeted by all levels of government. In 1988, the comparable study gave an overall grade of C, with many items getting B’s. Now, the very highest grade was for solid-waste systems, at C+, or “mediocre.” Roads, dams, hazardous-waste systems, school buildings, and public drinking water all received a D or D–. The average dam in the United States is 50 years old. “More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” according to the latest report. Improving existing bridges would cost about $17 billion per year, or about twice as much as currently budgeted. Worn-out water systems leak away 20 gallons of fresh water per day for every American; replacing systems that are nearing the end of their useful life would cost $11 billion more annually than all levels of government now plan to spend. “Engineers don’t usually put things dramatically, but the alarm about infrastructure is real,” Stephen Flynn, of the Center for National Policy, told me. “Our forebears invested billions in these systems when they were relatively much poorer than we are. We won’t even pay to maintain them for our own use, let alone have anything to pass to our grandchildren.”
• Robert Atkinson, the director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in Washington, has written that several times per century, a “transformational wave” of new technologies ripples through the economy and creates new opportunities and wealth. In the past, these have included mass-production systems, modern chemicals, aviation, and so on. Today the economically important technologies include genomic knowledge, information technologies like the Internet, and the geospatial information, from the GPS network, that is built into everything from dashboard navigators to the climate-change-monitoring systems that measure the size of glaciers or extent of forests. Private companies now create the jobs and wealth in each field, but public funds paid for the original scientific breakthroughs and provided early markets.
It couldn’t have been otherwise, Atkinson says. The scale of investment was too vast. The uncertainty of payoff was too great. The risk that profits and benefits would go to competitors who hadn’t made the initial investment was too high. The difference between promising and dead-end technologies was too hard to predict—especially decades ago, when work in all these fields began. So each started as a public program: the Internet by the Pentagon, the Human Genome Project by the National Institutes of Health, and the GPS network by the Air Force, which still operates it. The government could not have created Google, but Google could not have existed without government efforts to establish the Internet long before the company’s founders were born. This pattern—public investment and standard-setting, followed by private industrial growth—has been consistent through the years, Atkinson said, which is what worries him now. “Our companies and entrepreneurs are matchless in their power to adapt,” he said. “We lead in many categories the private economy can handle by itself. But where you need any public-private coordination, we’ve become handicapped. I worry that our companies can adapt, but our system can’t.”
• Scientists I spoke with said that as more and more research money is assigned by favoritism and earmark, it becomes harder for scientists to pursue the most-promising research opportunities. “The amount of earmarking that has percolated into the scientific establishment is disturbing,” Shirley Tilghman, of Princeton, told me, referring to congressional appropriations that single out particular scientists or projects for support rather than letting research organizations distribute the money. “Science is not a democracy. It is a meritocracy. The old cliché that 90 percent of the progress comes from 10 percent of the people is true. You want a system that acknowledges that the first priority is to get resources into the hands of the very best scientists, who are going to do the vast majority of the work that will move us ahead.” That was still easier in America than in most other places, she said, but harder than it used to be.
• In 1972, Congress created an Office of Technology Assessment as a source of nonpartisan expertise on scientific and technical questions, ranging from the utility of early anti‑ AIDS treatments to the practicality of alternative fuels for cars. The model was hailed and imitated internationally; here, it helped inspire the creation of the Congressional Budget Office two years later. The CBO remains, but in 1995 Newt Gingrich, in one of his early acts as speaker of the House, led a movement to abolish the OTA, as a symbolic strike against government waste. Its annual budget at the time was $22 million—less than a dime per U.S. citizen, or 20 minutes’ worth of financial-bailout spending early last year. “We are willfully making ourselves stupid,” Ralph Nader said about the absent OTA. He has urged the current Democratic congressional majority to reinstate it. But, he says, “they are so afraid of attacks for supporting ‘big government,’ they won’t dare.”
Nader, who at age 75 is as intense and animated as ever, concludes his modern jeremiads with a “yes we can!” appeal for the power of reform. (“I never like the word ‘hope,’ though,” he says. “It’s usually ‘I hope you can,’ not ‘I hope we can.’”) But he sounded pretty discouraged when ticking off the problems our system couldn’t face. “When was the last time we faced up to a major national problem?” he asked. “Immigration. Corporate crime. The war on drugs, which is a madness beyond boundaries.” The list went on, and of course included the rigidity of the two-party system and “the collapse of Congress” in terms of upholding its authority rather than abdicating its power to the White House. “We would do well to focus on the issue of public paralysis.”
• From a different political starting point than Nader’s, Andrew Bacevich reached a similar conclusion. Bacevich, a West Point graduate and career Army officer who now teaches at Boston University, began by criticizing today’s popular military doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN. With its emphasis on better ways of fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, he said, it represented a “triumph of tactics over strategy”—that is, better ways of doing a job that perhaps should not be done. “This is a phenomenon that goes beyond the military sphere to the political and economic sphere,” he said. “I think it would be easy for common-sense Americans to draw up a list of big things that would seem to demand concerted effort. Deficits are too big. Health costs are unacceptable. Oil. And yet we have a political system that seems to be constantly consumed with trivial things. We cannot seriously grapple with the big issues. Tactics consume strategy.” Rick Perlstein, whose Nixonland and Before the Storm are critical histories of the modern conservative movement, said the most worrisome symptom was the relative shortage of a jeremiad theme under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama. This he attributed to Ronald Reagan, “who managed to equate criticism with anti-Americanism, and render unintelligible bad news about America.” In the ’60s and ’70s, Perlstein said, “it was jeremiad city! The best-seller list was full of doom-and-gloom books.” In the long rhythms of American jeremiad, he said, that was a sign of political health, despite the excesses of those times. By contrast, the public mood now is “perilously blithe.”