The U.S. as 'Lethal Laughing Stock'


Yesterday I mentioned that governmental paralysis over the debt ceiling -- a wholly artificial construct* being addressed with mainly incoherent arguments** -- was already turning the strongest, richest country in the world into an international laughing stock, whether or not we reach the final disaster of a default. Three reactions:

1. From a reader near my own home town in Southern California:

>>"Laughing stock" is the exact choice of words I used in an email to my congress person, Ken Calvert, last night.  The U.S. now (and for the past 10 years) looks ever more like a ship of fools.  Our system seems to be more susceptible to the crazies among us than we would like to admit.  (Exactly what some of the founders feared.) 

But there is more to it, we are foolishly lethal.  So if you are a rational third party observer you have ask yourself whether these folks, the USA, should have such concentrated economic and military power if they are incapable of carefully and judiciously exercising that power.  I fear that we will see a reaction in the rest of the world that will reflect the realization that they need to reduce their exposure to us.   Time will tell, and I am less optimistic every day.<<

2. From a reader in Vermont:

>>I very much like and admire our president, but his speech the other night brought home again his inability to speak to the heart of the listener. This was a great strength of FDR. My mother who worshipped FDR always spoke about the beauty of his voice and how it connected with her. We can hear it ourselves in old recordings. I think that Obama has had to develop  an extraordinary faculty for detachment in order to prosper in a white world and it has, in general, served him well but in times like these we hunger for something more. Perhaps that is childish of us.

Still, we should keep our perspective- we've been through worse things.<<

That last point is responsible for a significant share of such "this too shall pass" serenity as I can muster during the current carnival. You hate to be in the position of saying, "Well, it was worse during the Civil War," but that still is true. As for the Vermonter's point about Obama's head-not-heart, cool-not-hot approach, James Warren makes a complementary argument that, despite his obvious gifts as a rhetorician and inspirational symbolic figure, Barack Obama's record is primarily that of a compromise-minded, horse-trading deal maker. For both better and worse.

3. After moving back from China I wrote a long article last year arguing that in almost every way America's prospects were bright -- except for the no-longer-just-a-source-of-amusement paralysis, pettiness, distraction, and dysfunction of our government. We are a great country, but we're increasingly run in a clownish way. In his final "Economic Scene" column today, David Leonhardt, the NYT's new Washington bureau chief, makes an important parallel point. A sample, with which I agree:

>>The [recent economic] malaise obviously has several causes, some of which are beyond our control. One major cause, however, is entirely our doing. We do not spend enough time focusing on our actual economic problems.

We are too often occupied with distractions, rather than trying to answer a simple question: What works? What economic policies have succeeded before and are most likely to lead to the best life for the largest number of people? Instead, we've effectively decided that because the United States is the richest, most successful country in the world, it is guaranteed to remain so.<<

On our site, Clive Crook sounds a similar cautionary note. Seriously, is the U.S. so decadent and inattentive that it is content to fritter away its prospects? "On several fronts, 'do nothing' is now a formula for likely decline," Clive Crook says. "Sustained and purposeful action is required. The federal government has less capacity to act intelligently just when it needs more."

Yes, it was worse in the Civil War. But this is pretty bad.
* "Wholly artificial construct": debt-ceiling votes are in effect referenda on whether the Congress will cover the cost of programs or benefits it has already voted to pay for. If you want to debate future spending, fine. But having a big showdown over whether to cover costs already committed-to is insane. Which is why debt-ceiling increases have been routine, or occasions for minor posturing, in previous administrations.

** "Mainly incoherent arguments": as demonstrated in charts drawn from CBO the tax cuts that were enacted under George W. Bush and extended under Barack Obama were the single largest policy change that led to today's federal deficits. Therefore you cannot rationally be committed to fighting the deficit, and also committed to preserving every cent of the tax cuts. One or the other must give way. Unless you are part of the House Republican majority, which is committed to both.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In