Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Is America too old to function?

One of the most frequent clichés I hear as an American living in Europe is that the US is a 'new country' while nations on this continent are 'old'. It is usually used to explain away American peculiarities, as if the US is a naïve child who just hasn't had the time to attain the wisdom of the more mature, centuries-old European states.

But however often it's repeated, this common wisdom is patently false. As a country, the United States is older than the vast majority of European states. At the time of the US declaration of independence in 1776, the states of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Latvia had all never existed yet in any form. And that's just to name a few. The fact is that European nations are actually quite young - and that is what makes them more agile in the face of modern problems than the United States.

Even the European countries which did exist in some form in 1776 - such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and France - today barely resemble what they were at that time. The Kingdoms of France and Portugal in 1776 are now republics with completely different systems of government. And going in the other direction, the Dutch Republic in 1776 - a loose confederation of provinces - bears little resemblance to today's Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The US has had the same governing structure since 1789, the date that marks the founding of the current American republic with the adoption of the US constitution (which replaced the previous Articles of Confederation in place since 1776). The US has used the same government system since then. Contrast this with France - whose current republic has only been in place since 1958 – or the Federal Republic of Germany, which dates from 1949. Other founding dates of current European government systems include: Italy – 1947, Spain – 1978 and Poland – 1997.

In fact the only European governments that could legitimately claim to be older than the US government system are the constitutional monarchies of Britain, Denmark and Sweden – but even this is arguable since they have had significant constitutional changes over the past 200 years.

When I point this out to Europeans or Americans, they usually argue that many current European states such as Spain and France are successors to previous kingdoms that had existed for hundreds of years. But in essence this is irrelevant because the American colonials who drafted the US constitution were also setting up a successor state in the European tradition. In terms of government structure, the US is a successor state to the British Empire in the same way that the French Republic is a successor state to the Kingdom of France. And most European states today are not even replacements of older entities. For example, at the time of the US declaration of independence in 1776, the states of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Romania and Latvia had all never existed yet in any form.

Antiquated US government

So why am I going off on this little historical bugaboo right now? This issue has been on my mind during the US debt ceiling crisis over the past few weeks, as Europeans have asked me in confused and exasperated tones what on earth is going on. I've struggled to answer them, because the idea that the United States might deliberately drive itself into default is so insane. But rather than offering the usual European explanation that  'the US is young and impetuous,' I've attributed it to this – the United States is operating under an antiquated 18th century governing structure that is not suited for the 21st century.

Let's look at the current crisis. Because of a strange quirk in American law put in place almost a hundred years ago, the congress must periodically raise the limit on how much money the US can borrow (few other developed countries have such a concept). The debt limit has been raised 102 times since then, including 10 times by the Republican congress during the presidency of George W. Bush. But this year the Republican-controlled congress, emboldened by the Tea Party-fuelled electoral victory last November, decided to hold the vote hostage. They said they would not vote to increase the debt ceiling unless the Obama administration agreed to a massive cut in government spending on programs to help the poorest Americans.

The consequences of not voting to increase the debt limit by today's deadline would have been enormous. It would have meant not only that the US government would be unable to pay out on social security (pensions), military salaries and unemployment benefits, it would also have meant a US default on its debts for the first time in history. Ratings agencies warned that such a move would mean a downgrade in the credit of the United States, and economists predicted that the result would be worldwide economic disaster that could lead to a global recession and possible even depression.

In the face of this threat, the Democrats agreed to the spending cuts demanded by the Republicans – but insisted that they needed to be coupled by an increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans and the end of tax subsidies for oil companies and other corporations. The Republicans refused, saying they would not agree to any tax increase whatsoever. As the August 2nd deadline loomed closer the whole thing became a giant game of chicken, with the fate of the world economy hanging in the balance. In the end the Democrats blinked, agreeing Sunday night to the Republican demands to slash government spending with no revenue increases (new taxes).

Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, columnists Paul Krugman wrote that the deal will be a disaster, not only for the US economy itself but for the political precedent it sets.
"By demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, [the deal] will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status…Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling."
The whole process has been horrifying to watch, and has started to cause some observers both inside and outside the US to question whether the American government is broken beyond repair. If even a simple housekeeping measure to raise the debt ceiling was so difficult, one can only conclude that it will be impossible for the US government to address the difficult questions that must be handled if America is to get itself out of the mess its in. The whole system now seems programmed to yield perverse results. As Krugman observed,
"What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t."
Agile Europe, constrained America

At this point the fact that Washington is broken has been widely accepted. But so far the blame in the American media has centered around politicians and their partisan bickering rather than on the system itself. The tough questions are not being asked.

What kind of a government system gives the minority party the ability to threaten to hit the national self-destruct button unless they get what they want? In what other democracy does an arcane law (the filibuster) mean that the majority in a governing body is 60% instead of 51%? In what other system are politicians forced to perpetually campaign because they must be re-elected every two years, allowing serious lawmaking to only happen in odd-numbered years? And where else could a president be elected despite the fact that his opponent received more votes (the 2000 election fiasco)?

Say what you will about the dysfunction in some European governments (Belgium and Italy come to mind), none of it approaches the level of Washington. That is partly because European democratic governments were mostly formed over the past 65 years, and they were able to reflect the realities of the modern world. Because they do not ascribe the same sacred, semi-religious veneration to their original founding document as do the Americans, European countries are able to make adjustments to their governing structure that would never be possible in America. Why? Because they are young, and evolving. The United States, by contrast, is old and static. It is an aging country in paralysis.

Just look at the big projects Europe is willing to undertake. They adopted an entirely new currency at the beginning of the last decade. They are engaged in a continual process of unification (though that process is stalled at the moment) which involves major governmental changes. Hungary just adopted a new constitution this year. In the UK, a vote was held a few months ago on whether to completely change the country's voting system. If you're looking for young, dynamic governments – the Old World is the place to be.

Can the US pursue similarly ambitious reform? Right now it seems unlikely. The idea of challenging the US constitution or the current system of government in the US is inconceivable. The US governing structure is considered so sacred, by both left and right, that the idea of tampering with it is akin to heresy. This is reflected in the current media narrative which sees the dysfunction in Washington and blames it on the politicians, as if just being a politician is inherently dysfunctional and amoral. There is no serious discussion over ending the filibuster, reforming the electoral college or making congressional terms longer. People see and recognize the problems, but there is a consensus that nothing can be done about them.

This debt ceiling circus has greatly shaken the world's confidence in both the US government and the dollar as the global reserve currency. And the markets do not appear confident that the US will be able to reform any time soon, because the system put in place by the "founding fathers" cannot be questioned, and there isn't the political will to pursue big ideas in America. But with the current antiquated governing structure still in place, America's position as a world leader cannot continue.

As Polly Toynbee wrote in today's Guardian, "The founding fathers built a constitution of checks and balances believing reasonable men would agree; how could they foresee Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck?"


mout102 said...

Very thought provoking, thanks.

Captain Kid said...

Very interesting analysis, thank you.

I think in the first half you should differentiate between a system of government and a nation. America's current system of government may be the oldest and therefore a problem for modern lawmaking, but as a nation the US is undoubtedly young in comparison to European nations as the Portuguese, e.g., who exist since the 11th C. I think this is why people perceive the US to be young.

Dave Keating said...

Ah but there the rub. Portugal wasn't truly a 'nation' in the modern sense of the word until the advent of nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The concept of nation-states mirroring a particular ethicity or people did not exist in the 11th century.

Captain Kid said...

But they shared a language, a culture and a King and 19th C nationalism was based on these common features. Theoretically, you may be right, but these peoples have a sense of history that unites there current states with their forerunners and they can trace their family trees back to that time. For the US, there is a clear cut in the 17th C and Americans don't even perceive what happened before as "their" history. For an American, "American history" starts with what happened during the Colonial period and not with the Declaration of Independence.

As I said, I'm only trying to point out why the US is perceived to be young.

Dave Keating said...

Mmm yes I agree that this is where the perception comes from. But what I think both Americans and Europeans forget is that modern nation states are only loosely based on these previous kingdoms, many of which were multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic and not based around 'nationality'. The nation-states of Europe that exist today are modern inventions, some of which are based on historical political entities but others not.

Also, the ancestry of current European populations has not been as stationary as people think. Geneological research has shown that European populations have moved and mixed, and it would be extremely rare for a European to be able to trace all of their ancestors over 10 generations to a single country.

The US is also a nation-state that was the successor to a European kingdom. Essentially American history before colonisation is British history, even if Americans don't think of it that way.

Anonymous said...

I find Europeans often think their countries are much older than they actually are, especially when they're bashing the EU. They say "Europe will never unite, these countries are thousands of years old". Apparently France was a neighbor of the Roman Empire!

Captain Kid said...

You're absolutely right, it's a modern invention. This is why I don't feel very comfortable with this concept of nationalism and its patriotism. It's essentially due to 19th C nationalistic propaganda that people think of multi-ethnic kingdoms as their nations' forerunners, I believe.

I live in Germany, where people think of the Holy Roman Empire as a German empire, although it was, as you said, multi-ethnic and even multi-linguistic.

However, countries like Portugal and France even bear the same name as their predecessor states (I mean the shortened versions), so that it is quite difficult for people not to see a continuity in history.

I think one reason for Americans not to think of British history as part of their history is that the US is a multi-ethnic nation and most of today's Americans don't have any relation to the British Empire as their ancestors came from Italy 100 years ago, e.g. Then, the War of Independence also marked a symbolic cut of ties with Britain. This is something Europe lacks. Current republics did not "become independent" from former kingdoms, but replaced them.

Then again, there were nationalistic uprisings e.g. in Portugal in the 17th C to fight the Spanish king and in Hungary as far back as the 16th C against their Austrian Habsburg king.

Chris said...

I cannot come to a decision on whether the Tea Partiers are 'naive children' or just plain mad....

Andrew said...

Brilliant article Dave. You might also add, what sort of system demands so much wealth to run for office, or make a succesful election campaigns. With the recent exception of incumbent Cameron, the last six British Prime Ministers (Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown) arguably came from working and middle class backgrounds.

Daniel said...

Good article, I think you make a lot of valid points. I would have liked to see Obama fight harder on this one. But even if he had fought harder, he might not have gotten much more. The Republicans have clearly lost it, and seem to have believed another economic calamity would hurt Obama (which was probably right). As usual, I think some on the left are over-reacting again though. This deal is not as one-sided as many of them have made it out to be. Most of the cuts are extremely back-loaded (only $22b in cuts for 2012), meaning they could be reversed by a later Congress. Entitlements are off-limits for the automatic trigger cuts. Defense spending will be slashed if the Republicans block whatever the "super-committee" comes up with. That will be a victory for the left. I anticipate the president and Democrats to continue pushing for tax increases on the wealthy, which of course the Republicans will probably block. But the Democrats have the upper hand there, as the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012. Keeping this issue on the table will also make the Republicans look extreme and unreasonable throughout the 2012 election. So the possibility still exists that we'll get huge defense cuts, no real entitlement benefit cuts, and a reversal of the Bush tax cuts by January 2013 when Obama begins his second term. Unless of course, they blow it, which is entirely possible. It's a long game and this is just one of the opening rounds.