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Does Irrationality Doom America?

How rational problem-solving has ceased to be "serious" among US elites.

Photo Credit: AFP



The United States is on the verge of committing suicide. Slow suicide, perhaps, which may take decades to fully play out, but suicide nonetheless. The proximate event is the sequester - deep across-the-board cuts to military and discretionary domestic spending, originally conceived as a Sword of Damocles, but which Tea Party-dominated Republicans now see as just the perfect budget axe. And that's just one of several successive and mostly recurring crisis points at which Republicans are obstinantly demanding deep budget cuts that will inevitably slow, if not cripple the already weak economy - as well as debilitating or destroying vital government functions in the long run.

This comes at a time when there's actually a staggering need to vastly expand the scope of government action to deal with multiple looming threats of environmental catastrophe - not to mention previously intolerable levels of unemployment, and a crumbling infrastructure. Climate change is just the most prominent of such environmental threats - not just to the United States, but to the continued existence of advanced industrial civilisation as a whole - which the US can't even begin to rationally grapple with as long as anti-government ideology blocks even the most common sense actions on well-understood problems. A super-power whose highways are cracking and bridges are falling down, and which then responds by slashing spending cannot be long for this world. If it staggers on for a few more decades, that's nothing compared to the centuries that the Roman Empire endured, much less the millenia of dynastic Egypt's glory.

If markets actually worked in practice the way that they do in the simplest of textbook examples, GOP plans to radically slash government spending might not be so problematic. But realworld markets not only go into crippling crises, like the Great Depression or its still-enduring younger brother, they also fail to meet important human needs. Indeed, as conservative German economist  Adolph Wagner noted in the late 19th century, the wealthier a nation becomes, the more it turns to non-market governmnet spending to meet needs that markets simply fail to meet. This observation was made well before the widespread rise of mass democratic government in the 20th century which underlay the rise of the modern welfare throuhgout the Western world. Thus, the practice of state spending to enhance the general welfare has deep historical and empirical foundations, and the sort of endless cutting that GOP now demands is nothing short of a suicidal policy for any would-be modern nation-state. The US already spends far less in the way of government social spending than most other advanced industrial nations - 16 percent of GDP compared to 20 percent for Norway, Britain and the Netherlands, 25 percent for Germany and Finland, 26 percent for Austria, Belgium and Denmark, 27 percent for Sweden and 28 percent for France,  according to the OECD - and GOP plans would slash current spending significantly below where we are today.

'Sequestration' : A term unclear to many in US

Centrist enablers

The culprit here, however, is not just GOP extremism - which is, after all,  wildly unpopular - but rather the morally feckless elite centrists who enable them by obscuring what they're up to, and by painting the Democrats are equally to blame, no matter what the Democrats do, short of capitulating completely.

Slates's Matthew Yglesias has  recently captured the essenial cognitive trick by which centrist ideology rationalises itself by blaming the (relatively, at least) blameless:

[S]eriousness can refer both to the merits of an initiative or to its political viability. So  scrapping the minimum wage in favor of a Guaranteed Basic Income isn't a serious proposal, since obviously it stands zero chance of passing Congress.

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