Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Democracy Downgrade?

Yesterday was slightly exceptional in that I managed to embarrass myself twice before the light of dawn.  I did not begin the day by contemplating something true or beautiful.  Instead I made a bee-line for my computer to seek out the Bank of America website to find out whether my monthly pension check had yet been deposited.  That was embarrassment number one.  Embarrassment number two was the quite real sense of annoyance, indeed grievance, that descended upon me when I discovered that in fact the deposit had not yet been made.

            In it inevitable that the aging process should be accompanied by a certain shortening of horizons, but surely those should be of the flesh, not of the spirit.  As a youngster I was aware of several local “seniors”—not my relatives, I hasten to add-- whose only visible occupation was awaiting their “government check,” as it was called.  How pathetic is that?  But at least they actually needed the money.  Without it they could not get the pickup fixed or renew the supply of Red Man indispensable for keeping their teeth and beard stubble at the proper level of disgustingness.  We are not exactly rolling in dough, but surely we have sufficient resources for a comfortable life without worrying about the months with thirty-one days.

            And I am not awaiting a government check, but a private sector annuity.  I tend not even to think about Social Security payments, which barely cover our property taxes.  But that hasn’t kept me from developing my own incipient case of entitlementitis.   The moment of discouraging self-awareness coincides with our reading of a particularly excellent article in the current issue of The Economist.  Its title is “What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy?”  I commend this essay to all thoughtful citizens.

            I see now that my own analysis of the current American malaise, which I tend to attribute to an obsolescent Constitution, is rather parochial.  This Economist essay taking a broader view, argues that it is world-wide democracy—of which our country is to be sure both the natural and the nominal leader—that is sickly.  It identifies the two precipitating causes of democracy’s malaise in our new century as the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the rise of China. 

            “The Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress.”  The failure of classic twentieth-century Communism was economic.  It didn’t work.  But China has shed the economic essence of Communism while keeping its authoritarian and anti-democratic politics, yet simultaneously achieving dramatic economic growth and expanding GNP.  In a world in which village pragmatists considerably outnumber political philosophers it is not clear that the American “democratic model” can claim the advantage of superior practical results.  “China says its model is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock.”

            If the essay’s most arresting ideas are those relating to China, it is the discussion of the world-wide financial crisis that is most relevant to my own current mood.  I lived most of my formative youth in a fear of debt that was sort of like the fear of polio.  I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew that you absolutely had to avoid it.  Of course I eventually grew up and learned that the way that even some quite sober citizens got their cars and houses and stuff was by buying them with money they didn’t actually have at the moment.  Embracing debt, indeed, seemed to be the essence of “the American way of life” and the necessary path to achievement of “the American dream”.  I eventually got with the program, but always nervously and with as little enthusiasm as was consistent with traveling on an American passport.

            So I thought I understood the financial crisis, sort of—vast numbers of people with huge housing debt and less housing equity, mighty financial institutions coming to me—moi!--rattling their tin cups, that sort of thing.  But here in this Economist article I read what I actually have believed all along: “The financial crisis has starkly exposed the unsustainability of debt-financed democracy.”  It may have exposed it, but so what?  The distinction between democracy and demagoguery is no wide gulf, perhaps nothing more than a lexical finesse.  Political pandering is necessarily a universal temptation of all democratic systems, but American constitutional democracy has developed in such a way as to make of it a controlling principle. 

            It is perhaps unfair that American Congress has apparently reached its nadir of public approval, since we have the Congress we want.  That is what “popularly elected” has to mean, isn’t it?  There is an effective symbiosis between an electorate that demands things it does not want to pay for and elected representatives who can wangle the short-means terms on which they can have them.   Or some of them—and not always the right ones.

            The Economist essay is by no means all doom and gloom.  There is an upbeat final section entitled “Getting Democracy Right.”  Here we find many sensible suggestions and at least plausible paths of reform.  Maybe it is merely my exhaustion before this grinding winter--or the fact that today is Ash Wednesday--that makes me find the gloom and doom part more convincing.