Monday, August 31, 2009

Paul Krugman still can't connect all the dots

Sandy Levinson

Paul Krugman's column in today's Times includes two sentences that, needless to say, I find highly compatible with my own analysis of our political situation. The first should be understood in the context of his point that Richard Nixon's health-care proposal, which Ted Kennedy and other Democrats unwisely rejected, was in fact better than any proposal currently on the table: "America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system’s ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable." The second is the final sentence of his column: "Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system." Krugman is right, of course, but, to my immense regret and frustration, still seems unable to connect the dots. (It is as if, in the 1920s, he analyzed the international economic system without paying attention to the idiocy of the gold standard, because, after all, it was the most basic assumption of international banking and to question it would represent the end of civilization as we knew it. (See, e.g., the excellent book Lords of Finance and particularly its portrait of Montague Norman, the head of the Bank of England.) The analogy, of course, is to our Constitution and its own contribution to our "dysfunctionality" and potential "ungovernability" with regard to issues almost literally involving life and death, including, of course, climate change.

The one and only reason anyone takes such denizens as Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe, Charles Grassley, Jeff Bingaman, and Michael Enzi at all seriously is because, representing a grand total of 2.77 of the American population (including o% of our most urban populations or what used to be called the "industrial heartland" of America), they comprise 6% of the votes in the Senate. Like the small parties in Israel, they can extort unconscionable terms from prime ministers desperately seeking to build a majority in the Knesset, especially if we add to the other distortions in the Senate the truly pernicious consequences of the filibuster as a normal way of doing business. Were there no filibuster in the Senate, then who would really care what these senators are "demanding" in return for their votes?

But Krugman prefers to analyze our present discontents in terms exclusively of the role of big money-lobbying and campaign contributions, which are clearly important and to ignore completely the negative contribution that our Constitution makes. Those who wish the United States ill should be the biggest celebrants on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, because unless and until it is reformed, the United States will ever more be unable to confront the really serious problems before it. Of course, to the extent the United States is unable to do this, there will be terrible externalities for the rest of the world as well, so maybe the "celebration" of our dysfunctional Constitution should be muted in Beijing, Tehran, and Caracas.