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Democracy, Part Ii: What Is It Good For?

Ezra Klein has some thoughts on whether democracies--particularly our version--can respond effectively to economic crisis, a question I raised yesterday:

Congress has been pretty pliant amidst all the rapid-fire bank bailouts and even the stimulus package. Republicans have been truculent about the stimulus, but truculence is also the luxury of the minority. If they were in the majority, they'd probably be much more constructive as they could claim credit for the recovery.

Indeed, I think our political system is actually fairly well-designed for short-term crises. The problem is long-term crises like global warming or health costs. As Peter Orszag wrote back on his CBO blog, "our political system doesn’t deal well with gradual, long-term problems" that require "trading off up-front costs in exchange for long-term benefits."

I'd certainly agree that our political system doesn't deal well with long-term crises. But it's not an either-or proposition, and it's the short-term crisis that's keeping me up at night. (With a long-term crisis, at least you have several years to change public opinion, which is probably apathetic at worst and can be mobilized to get politicians' attention. With a short-term economic crisis, public opinion will often be arrayed against you.)

As to the point about the bailout, I guess I'm not nearly as confident that Republican opposition isn't distorting the response in important ways. For one thing, Democrats believe the word "nationalization" is basically un-utterable because Republicans would wrap it around their necks, the occcasional assurance from Lindsey Graham notwithstanding. For another, the stimulus was less potent than it needed to be thanks to near-total Republican opposition and the demands of the few Republicans who did play ball.

In any case, the point doesn't hinge on Republicans per se; it has to do with the tensions built into our political system generally. Whatever the source of their hesitation, most members of Congress are clearly petrified about, say, handing over more bank bailout money even though what we've got is clearly insufficient. Now, there's good reason for Congress to be scared--mistakes were made, as they say, and the public is rightly pissed. But mistakes are inevitable under these circumstances. It would be nice if they didn't lead to paralysis, since you still need to fix the problem. But our system can tend toward paralysis.

As Matt Yglesias points out in response to Ezra:

[T]he U.S. political system, with its high number of veto points, is arguably unsuited to taking decisive action in response to a crisis compared to alternative models, such as the Westminster system in play in the United Kingdom and Canada or to the multiparty coalition systems of northern Europe. ... Certainly the American system doesn’t appear to have been designed with an aim to facilitating a decisive response in a crisis situation.

The British parliamantery system is one model that might be more effective. Another model is something along the lines of the freer hand a president has in dealing with a foreign policy crisis. It's beyond obvious to point out that both can be abused, and they may be undesirable for other reasons. The point is just that our current system has some real limitations in these situations.

--Noam Scheiber