Sunday, October 7, 2012

A country that's not so great

"This is the greatest country in the world."

You hear that sentiment all the time, especially during election season, and the statement comes from both ends of the political spectrum. It's a given, a cliche so expected that no one notices it any more.

But is it true? Can it be true when Congress, the highest legislative body in the country, the organization that is supposed to be setting a course for the nation, is widely described as dysfunctional? Congress still has not passed a budget for the current fiscal year. On Jan. 1, the nation reaches a deadline contrived to get the country past a crisis manipulated for political purposes. The solution was not to resolve the differences among elected representatives but to avoid taking action of any kind for several months. Recent reports indicate that Congress is unlikely to take action on this "fiscal cliff" before the deadline arrives.

Congress, by the way, is already on vacation from its appointed duties, having clocked out in September until after next month's election. Congress is in session and at work only four days a week when it is in session, and its recesses have grown longer and longer over the past several years.

In session or out, congressional leaders spend most of their time criticizing members of the other party and contriving legislation whose only purpose is to provide more criticism of the other party. Truly important legislation, such as the budget, never gets enacted or even debated. For 20 years, Congress has recognized that the nation's Social Security and Medicare systems are fiscally unsustainable. Social Security can be repaired through relatively minor changes in benefits and/or contributions, but neither party wants to face the criticism the other party will unload upon anyone who suggests corrective changes. Likewise, Medicare needs practical revisions, but political considerations keep changes bottled up.

The nation's debt ($16 trillion) presents an imminent threat to the economic health of the nation, but Congress seems incapable of dealing with the matter because both major parties are so fixed on their own political interests that they will neither adopt practical solutions nor allow the other party do it. Congressional leaders would rather win the next election than solve the country's problems. Despite the fact that Congress is one of the most reviled institutions in the country (16 percent approval rating), nearly all of the incumbents will be re-elected because computer-assisted manipulation of congressional districts give incumbents a huge advantage over challengers.

How can we call this "the greatest country in the world"?

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