WASHINGTON — Elections supposedly prevent convulsions, serving as safety valves that vent social pressures and enable course corrections. November's election will either be a prelude to a convulsion or the beginning of a turn away from one.
America's public-policy dysfunction exists not because democracy isn't working but because it is. Both parties are sensitive market mechanisms, measuring more than shaping voters' preferences. The electoral system is a seismograph recording every tremor of public appetite. Today, the differences that divide the public are exceeded by the contradictions within the public's mind.
America's bold premise is the possibility of dignified self-government — people making reasonable choices about restrained appetites. But three decades ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington postulated that America suffers regularly recurring political convulsions because the gap between the premise and reality becomes too wide to ignore.
Now Michael Greve, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues: "We like to tell ourselves that all our constitutional stories must have a happy ending." The Founders' foremost problem, Greve says, was debt. To establish the nation's credibility, they needed to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. "We," Greve says, "merely have to return to it, if we can." He wonders whether we can.
The official national debt of $16 trillion (growing $4 billion a day), plus what the government owes in various trust funds, is more than 100 percent of GDP. Ninety percent is where economic anemia seems to deepen. States' debts are about $3 trillion and their unfunded pension liabilities probably are another $4 trillion. "Debts of this magnitude," Greve says, "will not be paid."
Barack Obama's risible solution is to add 4.6 points to the tax rate for less than 3 percent of Americans. Some conservatives have the audacity of hope — expecting 5 percent economic growth (the post-1945 average: 2.9 percent) and planning to continue financing the debt by borrowing at negative interest rates. Of our long slide into financial decrepitude, Greve says: "The rate of deterioration does not correlate in any obvious way with political control over the presidency and Congress."
The housing debacle was not the result of "a spontaneous outbreak of private irresponsibility." Public institutions and policies provided occasions and incentives for the exercise of private vices. Washington pays up to 80 percent of state Medicaid expenses, so states' citizens demand more Medicaid services. Although the elderly consider Social Security and Medicare benefits earned, Greve says: "Most retirees could not have earned their expected payment streams if they had worked two or three jobs."
"Our politics," says Greve, "aims at inspiration on the cheap." We should reduce government's complicity in illusions by, for example, sending retirees "a statement showing the estimated present value of their old-age benefits; their lifetime earnings and contributions; and the earnings and contributions that it would have taken to 'earn' those benefits. We might then ask them who precisely should earn and remit the missing millions and in what sense it would be 'unfair' to modify the empty promises."
Rash promises were made, Greve says, "in an era of prosperity, when and because we thought we could afford them." Now they "are far too entrenched to be dislodged in the course of ordinary politics." Even granting Mitt Romney's embrace of something like his running mate's reforms, this year's politics are terribly ordinary. Although consensus is supposedly elusive, it actually is the problem. "Our operative consensus," says Greve, "is to have a big transfer state, and not pay for it."
Democracy is representative government, which is the problem. Democracy represents the public's preferences, which are mutable, but also represents human nature, which is constant. People flinch from confronting difficult problems until driven to by necessity's lash. The Claremont Institute's William Voegeli, commenting on Greve and the dubious postulate of continuous 5 percent growth, says: "There's good reason to fear that if the economy builds a 5 percent levee the polity will just come up with a 6 percent flood. We humans adroitly use scant and equivocal evidence to convince ourselves that the most congenial interpretation of events is also the most plausible and durable."
Writing in 1830, Thomas Babington Macaulay asked, "On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" Greve's gloomy answer is: Because we actually see behind us protracted abandonment of the Founders' flinty realism about the need to limit government because of the limitations of the people.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.