There is no doubt that we live in “challenging” times. We face ‘social challenges,’ from racial discrimination to gender inequality, women’s rights (reproductive or otherwise) that will have to be addressed, LGBTQ issues (recognition of gay marriage), a gun violence epidemic due to both inadequate gun control laws but also excessive violence in our society, etc. We also face ‘economic challenges,’ like stagnant salaries and low wages, job insecurity (due to automation or outsourcing), taxes that are too high for some and not high enough for others, mounting student debt, and yes massive income inequality. And, of course, we do face ‘external challenges’, from nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula, to ISIS and religiously motivated global terrorism, to global warming and climate change!
Yet, most of these issues are but symptoms of a greater cause. Their existence, or our inability to overcome them, is being caused by a much greater problem in our society that unless we address soon we risk permanent societal failures within the next 20 to 30 years.
This greater cause is our very own failing system of governance!!!
Though brilliant in its original construction by the founding fathers, our Federal system of governance (separation of powers, check and balances, separate Federal and State governments) is grossly off track and highly unbalanced. During the past 200 years, we witnessed a steady transfer of power away from the States and into the Federal government, and within the Federal government we saw a similar steady concentration of power in the hands of the Executive (the singular President), and to a certain extend the Supreme Court (due to Congressional acquiescence).
This did not happen due to some conspiracy by the ‘powerful elite’ or through interference by foreign powers. It happened gradually (almost naturally), as a response to major failures at the State level: in dealing with slavery and racial discrimination (see Civil War and Jim Crow laws in the south), in dealing with market failures and the need to regulate business and provide a safety net (see Great Depression, The New Deal and the Great Society), in fighting a Cold War with the Soviet Union (see expansion of military and intelligence services to advance US foreign policy).
Today, power and authority to deal with issues and solve problems is highly concentrated at the Federal level, away from ordinary people and their ability to monitor let alone influence elected politicians.
There is so much power concentrated at the Federal level, and in particular in the hands of one person (the President) that it makes Washington politicians constant targets of special interests and lobbying organizations, makes negotiations for compromise impossible because there is so much at stake, and it has created a highly unbalanced system (where “checks and balances” are not fully implemented and more often can’t work effectively).
Washington gridlock, dysfunction, polarization, and partisanship have led to the inability to pass a budget (balanced or otherwise), or address the need for immigration reform, or provide for adequate healthcare coverage and affordable prescription drugs, or even implement proper tax reform. Therefore, unless we address these ‘systemic’ failures of our system of governance, unless we implement institutional changes and fix the process, we will never get lasting solutions to our current and future societal challenges.
Unfortunately, there is no one thing we can do, no ‘magic bullet’ that can fix the dysfunction of our Federal system of governance (because it’s not just ‘the Federal government’ that needs reform, but also/primarily Congress and the Judiciary). Rather, there are several things (from specific process changes through laws/regulations to Constitutional amendments) that we will have to changes now, in order to see improvement in the function of our system of governance in the next 20 to 30 years.
There is a parallel example to this system of governance failures, and it’s that of ‘global warming.’ Global temperatures have been rising, due to greenhouse gases (caused by human activity – burning fossil fuels like coal and oil), presenting an existential threat to our planet and our way of life. However, fossil fuels are not inherently evil, used by certain people bent on the destruction of humanity! Energy from fossil fuels was instrumental in facilitating the industrial revolution, which brought progress and technological innovations during the past 150 years, that helped the whole world to advance, prosper, and better connect. It was not until recently that we realized that the constantly expanding use of fossil fuels by humans is contributing to rising temperatures, and if we don’t do something now to ‘bent the curve’, then in 20 to 30 years from now temperatures will rise to levels that can be devastating to the planets ecosystem, and by extension us humans.
Concentration of power at the Federal level, over the past 200 years, though not inherently evil (downright necessary and proper during some critical periods), has reached a point of pure dysfunction. The proof of the unsustainable nature of our current system (like rising temperatures are a proof of global warming) is income inequality. During the past 50 years, we have witnessed a steady concentration of wealth at the hands of the top 10% (and primarily the top 1%).
And although one can look at our society today statically and say: “things are still ok: there are rich people and poor people, and we are still the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world – so what’s the problem?”… the trend keeps going upwards: currently over 70% of our national wealth is concentrated at the hands for the top 10%. When do we need to do something to stop this trend? When it gets to 80%, or 90%?
Democrats and Republicans (now thanks to Donald Trump) both agree on the existence of a ‘powerful elite, in cahoots with the political establishment, bent on exploiting the middle class’… yet both party’s solution is the same: win political power and cut or raise taxes, regulate more or less, appoint some type of judges… in essence, deal with the symptoms and not the underlying cause!
If we want to address the underlying cause of income inequality (and outsourcing of jobs, health-care failures, racial tensions, education funding, women’s rights, public housing, etc.), then we need to reform our system of governance, before we can consider specific policy priorities. By fixing the legislative process, restoring proper checks, correcting the imbalance within the government branches and returning powers back to the States… we can get on a path where we see real results within the next 20 to 30 years.
Otherwise, gridlock and dysfunction at the Federal level will only get worse!