Francis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” There are many reasons for that failure. But in Fukuyama’s analysis, two reasons stands out: First, the American penchant for addressing political problems through law, and second, the legalized corruption of interest groups. What unites these two culprits in Fukuyama’s grand synthesis is that both are born out of what he sees as a fundamentally American distrust of government.
Distrust of government means, Fukuyama writes, that American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power unlike other democracies. And this has led our political institutions to decay.
The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.
Fukuyama knows bureaucracy can be problematic—the rule of nobody, in Arendt’s formulation—but at least bureaucrat rule is rule. In his telling, the problem is that U.S. has developed a huge bureaucracy that we don’t trust and thus limit through lawsuits, injunctions, and constitutional challenges. So we have the worst of both worlds, a large unelected and anonymous bureaucracy that is itself disempowered and neutered by an even more powerful unelected and anonymous judiciary.
Because there is “too much law,” the bureaucracy doesn’t work. What is more, the combined power of an anonymous bureaucracy and an anonymous judiciary has led to our present crisis of representative democracy, one in which Americans of all political persuasions feel that government is a foreign occupying power that is unanswerable to them. This leads in turn to a distrust of all government, a cynicism that “further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy.”
The fact that Americans distrust government means that they place increasing judicial and legislative roadblocks in front of governmental decisions. There is the famous multiplication of agencies and competing authorities, which offers multiple points for influence by lobbyists. As long as so many different agencies have the power to veto or slow down governmental action, government is stymied. “The longstanding distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics had led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action. It has led to vetocracy.” Lobbyists thus have an outsized power to capture authorities and disproportionately impact legislation, which furthers cynicism about government. These problems are deeply ingrained in American values and in our Constitution, which makes them unsolvable. Which is the depressing note upon which Fukuyama ends his essay:
Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So we have a problem.
What is striking is how Fukuyama is unable to find resources in the American Constitutional system that might reinvigorate our political institutions. It is as if the American distrust of government means that American democracy is unsalvageable. At times of partisanship, it will lead to Civil War or sclerosis. There is no alternative.
It is a mistake—although one commonly made—to understand the U.S. Constitution as one dominated by a mistrust of governmental power and thus marked by institutions designed to limit governmental power. The genius of the American Constitution, as Hannah Arendt argues, is not the limitation of power, but the multiplication of powers. More important than the three branches of the Federal government in Arendt’s account is the preservation of multiple levels of federal, state, county, city, and village power. The Congress’ power was limited not simply by the President and the Judiciary, but by the states and local authorities. The grant of powers to Congress was limited and expansion of national power was to be constrained by the power of local institutions.
What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions.
Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions. There are many other causes for the increasing concentration of power and the loss of local institutional power, but there are plenty of resources for reinvigorating local self-governmental institutions in the American political tradition and in the Constitution itself. Yes, “we have a problem.” But there are always ways forward.
Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of our current political decay is powerful and important. It is your weekend read.
Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.
In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.
The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.
Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.
If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:
When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.
And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.
The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.
Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.
Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.
Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.
Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”
The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”
But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less. That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.
The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.
The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).
Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.