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Thursday, April 28, 2011 03:20 pm

While U.S. fiddles, China gains

Our political impasse remains unchanged. When Republicans hold offices, Democrats grab their popcorn, withhold their talent, time and treasure, and watch the failures as entertainment. When Democrats hold offices, Republicans do the same.

The recent congressional budget squabble demonstrated our dysfunction, and the squabbling flared up again once the Congressional Budget Office reported that instead of the $38.5 billion of spending cuts that both sides were claiming as a “victory,” the actual decline in real spending probably would total about $352 million.

How many weeks did our elected leaders waste on this squabble? This is not governing; it’s complacent idiocy.

You have to wonder about the wisdom of leaders who fail to look their rank-and-file supporters in the eyes and tell them some obvious truths. Pandering to voters about how liberals want to spend only other people’s money or how conservatives are closet racists is easy, yet shortsighted. Both liberals and conservatives pay taxes, and both groups suffer during economic downturns.

Remember that Barack Obama and John McCain spent nearly $1 billion on their 2008 presidential campaigns, with Obama holding almost a 2-to-1 dollar margin. Their parties spent another $542 million, with the Republicans at $336.7 million holding the largest portion. Both sides in our political power struggle possess great wealth and fervent supporters.

But by demonizing the other side, some political leaders and pundits are creating the preconditions for failure. In this debased cultural context, half of our citizens sit on the bench while we compete globally against the European Union or China and struggle to ameliorate our many community problems.

Progressives will generously expend our resources on the task of improving this country, but if our leaders seek to destroy NPR, collective-bargaining rights, and the social safety net, we will not raise a finger – or spend one unnecessary dime – to help them. We will watch them fail. We will work to ensure that they do.

Meanwhile, the United States is burning, or declining, or coming closer to implosion. China’s currency reserves have topped $3 trillion, according to The Economist. The clever folks at The Economist crunched some other numbers to highlight the theoretical buying power of this enormous sum: all the farmland and farm buildings in the U.S. are worth $1.9 trillion and the combined value of four major corporations (Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and Google) is less than $1 trillion.

By comparison, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States probably will run a 2011 budget deficit of approximately $1.5 trillion.

This is what Indiana governor Mitch Daniels tried to warn conservatives about in a recent speech. If you want to accomplish anything wise (i.e., difficult) in this country, you need a large coalition of support; your base plus some independents is not enough.

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman argues persuasively that economic growth correlates with a societal willingness to support progressive changes, ranging from the limited work week or minimum wage to Social Security, student aid, Medicare, or Medicaid. Progressives, unhappy about the upsurge in animosity toward immigrants and the attempted gutting of the social safety net, surprisingly could find some common ground with conservatives on job-creation initiatives.

To a degree, leaders go where voters push them, and we’re pushing our leaders into irrationality.

As our leaders take their recess break, they might host a few dinner parties where they put Democratic and Republican constituents at the same tables for a conversation about real economic growth. That way, perhaps we’ll learn once again how to talk to each other, rather than past each other.

We should tell them that we’re ready for them to stop fiddling and start governing.

Nick Capo, an associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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