The Status Quo In America Can’t Be Maintained

Just as a blind squirrel will find a nut now and again, David Brooks will occasionally, against all the odds, write a good column. His latest, The Big Disconnect, is such a column.

Moreover, the two parties are about to run utterly familiar political campaigns. The Democrats are going to promise to raise taxes on the rich to preserve the welfare state, just as they have since 1980. The Republicans are going to vow to cut taxes and introduce market mechanisms to reform the welfare state, just as they have since 1980.

The country is about to be offered the same two products: one from Soviet Production Facility A (the Republicans), and the other from Soviet Production Facility B (the Democrats). It will react just as it always has.

From this you could easily get the impression that American politics are trundling along as usual. But this stability is misleading. The current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting.

This cracking and rotting is originally caused by a series of structural problems that transcend any economic cycle: There are structural problems in the economy as growth slows and middle-class incomes stagnate. There are structural problems in the welfare state as baby boomers spend lavishly on themselves and impose horrendous costs on future generations. There are structural problems in energy markets as the rise of China and chronic instability in the Middle East leads to volatile gas prices. There are structural problems with immigration policy and tax policy and on and on.

As these problems have gone unaddressed, Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system, which is the one resource the entire regime is predicated upon. This loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless and defensive.

…At some point something is going to happen to topple the political platform – maybe a debt crisis, maybe when China passes the United States as the world’s largest economy, perhaps as early as 2016. At that point, we could see changes that are unimaginable today.

New political forces will emerge from the outside or the inside. A semi-crackpot outsider like Donald Trump could storm the gates and achieve astonishing political stature. Alternatively, insiders like the Simpson-Bowles commission or the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” could assert authority and recreate a strong centrist political establishment, such as the nation enjoyed in the 1950s.

Neither seems likely now. But in these circumstances, rule out nothing.

Thing are not going to continue on in America over the next few decades the way they have in the past few decades because they can’t. The amount of money it would cost to continue funding Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is unsustainable at our current tax rates. So, either the costs of those programs will have to be scaled back dramatically or taxes will rise to levels we consider to be unimaginable.

This is, as Brooks states, a structural problem that people have seen coming for a long, long time. The reason it hasn’t been dealt with is politics, pure and simple. Unfortunately, we’ve had and continue to have too many people in our government who’d rather lose the country than risk losing their jobs. This is frightening because the longer this goes on, the more difficult the corrections will be and the greater chance that they may end up destabilizing the country socially, economically, or politically.

If you’re not extremely worried about the direction this country is going in, then you’re not paying attention.

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