You say the U.S. government is broken? So name a country that is doing it better?

Posted at 2:06 PM, Jan 29, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-29 14:26:24-05

I got spanked at dinner last week.  It was good for me.

My punishment was administered by David W. Brady, a professor of political science at Stanford University and the Deputy Director of the Hoover Institution there. 

I began spouting about dysfunction in government when Brady shut me up. Who exactly is doing better?  What government, what system and, most important, what economy is doing a demonstrably better job than the U.S.?

I didn’t have a ready answer. I still don’t. That doesn’t matter. It is an important question, it re-frames the picture.

Brady has taught at Stanford’s business school as well as in the political science department.  He is a historian and an empiricist. He has a quality I rarely encounter, the capacity to think pragmatically about very big concepts.  And he is as cranky as Model T, which makes him fun.

Brady’s reproach was a condensed version of an essay he wrote last year on called “Is the U.S. Government Really Broken?”

Brady says that we (pundits, pols, academics, slacktivists and so on) simplistically assert that smart people and rational systems can solve the planet’s problems. Even leaving aside such things as global warming, disease and ethnic/religious strife, Brady says, the basics of economics and production are epically difficult.

A fair, rational way to assess the U.S. government is to compare our economy to others.

“…The great transformation of the world economy over the last 30 years… has generated a difficult set of problems that no individual or country has solved,” Brady writes. “There is in this new transformed economy increased global competition as labor in Asia and the developing world displaces the middle class and high-paying manufacturing jobs in Europe and the U.S., leading to high unemployment levels and the concomitant spending increases.” That’s just a sample of the challenges.

The U.S. is doing better than the world’s other advanced economies, better than the G-20 countries and better than Europe. Some countries do better in some areas – lower unemployment or higher productivity growth, for example. Overall, the U.S. tops the list thus defying the idea that our government is broken.

We are in the second great transformation of the world’s economy; the first was the industrial revolution. That affected about one-third of the world’s population, far less than today’s globalization and technology revolution.

But Brady says both transformations created “eerily similar” problems for the U.S.

“The post-Civil War growth of the U.S. and world economies led to a gilded era, with the ‘1 percent’ one hears so much talk of today enjoying vastly increased income, contributing to greater wealth disparity and the corresponding politics of equality,” Brady writes.  In both eras, there were loud calls for broad reforms of government and financial regulation.

Brady’s “nobody is doing better” defense is sensible and sobering, if not inspiring.  The lack of faith in our public institutions is not trivial, but also not proof the system is broken. The lack of humility those of us in the Smarty-pants Business display in the Internet Age, the certainty we have in our takes on the world, wholly deserves Brady’s cranky skepticism.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Is Koch Brothers’ $889 million really a big deal?]

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