Some Comments on Government, Followed by Another Dialogue

Congress is taking a recess for the month of August without yet having passed either health-care reform or legislation to address climate change. It’s still possible that one or both of these issues will be resolved this autumn in some way, but lots of progressives are getting frustrated. Matt Taibbi is always frustrated, but last week he found agreement from Ezra Klein, who is usually much more sanguine about the establishment. Ezra wrote that it’s too soon to abandon hope for reform — “Something might get done” — but

whatever gets done will be much too expensive because the political system is very afraid of harming any of the relevant industries. Taibbi is right that [health care reform], like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation… The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

I think these statements are obviously correct, but if anyone disagrees I’d be interested to hear why. One of the Economist’s anonymous Democracy in America bloggers was also struck by these comments, and wrote a nice post about how every generation of young progressive intellectuals starts off idealistic about politics and then gets disenchanted and either moderates or radicalizes. The DiA commenters were generally pretty dismissive of the concerns of Klein and Taibbi (e.g. “Um, I can sum this up in one word: whining”), which made me think more about the issue. Reflecting on it for a while, instead of coming to a conclusion I ended up with another dialogue, which I have reproduced below the fold:

Young Progressive Intellectual: The system is broken. It can’t respond to the fundamental issues of our time such as health care coverage and climate change.

Very Serious Intellectual: It’s no surprise that you think so. People your age have been saying that in every generation, but civilization is still here!

YPI: But today’s issues are much more serious! Runaway health care costs are ridiculous and swallowing up the whole national budget while producing second-world level quality of care! And climate change could trigger a feedback loop that would literally end civilization on the planet.

VSI: Those do seem like serious problems. But every generation thinks its problems are the most important in history. The Port Huron Statement was written almost fifty years ago by young progressive intellectuals, and they were just as self-important as you are, writing that “our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living”.

YPI: Okay, so I guess I do feel the same way that they do. But, look, those students fifty years ago were right! They anticipated the civil rights movement and their severe judgments on American hypocrisy with respect to both civil rights and the Cold War are now almost universally accepted. In the future, people will look back on our wanton pollution and our tolerance of horrifying practices like rescission, and their judgments will also be harsh.

VSI: But you’re also naïve! The Civil Rights Act, while morally correct, still incurred a massive political backlash from which progressives are only now beginning to recover – remember President Johnson’s famous quip that by signing the bill, Democrats “have lost the South for a generation”? The Civil Rights Act was morally correct, and probably politically correct as well, but you need to remember the two aren’t the same. Politics is more than just morality. Sometimes what’s morally right is politically suicidal; that’s why Dick Cheney is still loose, for example.

YPI: Now you’re just trying to turn this into another of those age-old arguments between extremism and moderation. That’s a fun argument, but it’s not relevant to my specific complaints. For example, with respect to health insurance, a big majority of Americans supports a public option, but there’s a very real chance we won’t get one because of pressure on Congress from insurance companies. That’s not moderation, that’s just corruption!

VSI: Okay, fine, and we can all agree that corruption is bad. But you seem to think it’s apocalyptic instead of just bad.

YPI: This stuff is apocalyptic: if you get sick and screwed over by your insurance company, your life is over. You either go bankrupt, or die.

VSI: That’s true, and terrible, but it’s not what I’m talking about. In that earlier quote, Ezra Klein is using fall-of-empires type rhetoric to describe these issues.

YPI: Sometimes, empires do fall!

VSI: Eventually they do, but I don’t think it’ll happen any time soon, and I certainly don’t think your pet issues are going to  be the cause.

YPI: We’ll find out in a decade or two, I guess.

VSI: But by then you’ll be all grown up, and you’ll become a Very Serious Intellectual yourself.

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