America, You're Not That Weird

The principle problem with Americans' relationship to their government, CBO chief Doug Elmendorf wrote in 2008, was "a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide ... and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services."

I'm reminded of that brutal, and true, assessment by this Anne Applebaum column in Slate, where she lambastes the country for asking for a small government while expecting all the benefits of a big government:

Look around the world and we don't seem as exceptional as we think. Chileans are willing to save for their own retirement. Most Europeans are reconciled to the idea that not everybody, at any age and in any condition, is entitled to the most expensive medical technology. A secretary of state or defense traveling with dozens of cars and armed security men would seem absurd in many countries, as would the notion that the government gives you a tax break if you buy a house, or that schools should close if there is ice on the roads. Yet we not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we reserve the right to rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created--democratically, constitutionally, openly--to deliver it.

I agreed with most of the column, but I cringed at this paragraph. I find the America-is-Exceptionally-Stupid argument as tiresome as its more common America-is-Exceptional cousin. Most of the developed world is experiencing what the United States is experiencing: a deficit explosion and long-term debt crises ignited by the recession and fueled by pension and medical service obligations that weigh more than we're prepared to lift with current tax levels.

The inconsistencies of the Tea Party ethos, the hypocrisies of Sarah Palin, the perfect metaphor of the oil leak: these are all interesting touchstones of America's weirdness. But when you get right down to it, we're not terribly exceptional in our idiosyncrasies. If you tell an electorate for 20 years that you can give them more services for less taxes, they're going to believe you ... until, perhaps, they don't.