National Political Polarization And The Boundaries Of Legitimate Debate

With Congress deadlocked and the government "shut down" now for several weeks, the latest fashion is lamenting the terrible partisan divide that has the country so terribly polarized.    According to a July 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center here, partisan polarization in Congress and among the public is the greatest it has ever been in the U.S.  "From immigration reform to food stamps to student loans, it almost seems as if congressional Republicans and Democrats inhabit different worlds."  And they don't even mention Obamacare!

Why can't we all just get along here?  How could Congress be so irresponsible as to fail to come to a deal to run the government? -- isn't that their number one job?

Here's the problem.  There really are two views of the proper role of the federal government, and they are not compatible.  One view, exemplified by the Democrats, is that the proper role of the central government is to solve all the personal problems of the people and to remove all downside risk of human existence.  The other view, far less well-exemplified by the Republicans, is that the government does not have the ability (let along the constitutional authority) to solve all human problems, is way too big, and needs to shrink.

Is there actually an appropriate compromise between those two views?  On the one hand, we have Nancy Pelosi and those like-minded with her, who would gladly see the government double in size, and then double again.  On the other hand, you have myself, who thinks that the government needs to shrink substantially.  Until recently the Republicans were not actually pushing for shrinkage, but rather, most of the time, for sort of holding the line.  For decades this led to a  "compromise" between these two sides that the government always grows, generally somewhat faster than GDP, although less fast than its most extreme advocates would like.   And the result was that an already too-big government became gradually bigger and bigger as a part of our economy and of our lives.  Here is a chart of post-war federal spending as a percent of GDP, going from about 16% in 1947 to almost 26% in 2009-11.  (It was well under 10% before the New Deal.)      

But now we have some substantial voices for actual shrinkage entering the debate -- for example, the TEA Party and some Senators like Cruz and Paul.  For literally my whole life, the boundaries of civilized discussion of the role of government have been defined by a relatively narrow band between growth and more growth -- Should we grow spending by 5% this year, or 10%?  OK, we'll compromise at 7.34958%.  Done!  But what's the compromise between the side wanting 20% growth and the side wanting big shrinkage of, say, at least 20%?  Not so easy.  If you think the government needs to shrink, and by a lot, the idea of a "compromise" at 7+% growth is just fundamentally not OK.  

The whole idea of shrinkage poses an existential threat to those living well off the government, most notably its senior bureaucrats and hangers on in and around DC.  They're not going down easily.  The main effort at the moment seems to be to rule the whole idea of shrinkage -- that any program can be reduced by even a dollar, let alone eliminated -- as off limits of legitimate discussion.  Thus the favorite epithet of the DC establishment is that the Republicans are "extremists" for holding out for the idea that the government should be funded by anything other than one gigantic continuing resolution that continues every single program and of course most notably Obamacare.  See for example E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post here.  Or how about this from Nancy Pelosi on September 23:   

But for many of them, I call them legislative arsonists. They're there to burn down what we should be building up in terms of investments in education and scientific research and all that it is that makes our country great and competitive.

And those are the polite ones.  Other terms applied to anyone seeking to shrink any government program by even a few percent include "repugnant," "repulsive," "cruel," "devastating," "disastrous," "mean," and plenty more, as I noted in my post about food stamps a few days ago.

Well, the problem is that the government needs to shrink.   Food stamps just grew from $40 billion per year to $80 billion in 5 years of supposed economic recovery on Obama's watch.  Recruiters comb the country looking for new people to enroll.  Home equity and retirement accounts in unlimited amounts will not disqualify you.  Does anyone really think this can continue?  Medicare and Medicaid have grown at approximately 8% compound annual growth rates since inception in the 60s.  If not fundamentally restructured, they will swallow the whole economy at some point during the 21st century.  The cash-basis federal deficit is around $900 billion this year, but the far-more-honest accrual basis deficit would be more like $5 - 10 trillion.  You can try for a while to keep the forces of shrinkage at bay by calling them names, but in the end, it's only a question of when it happens, not whether. 

I say we should establish new boundaries of legitimate debate.  To count as civilized, you must propose shrinking the federal government by at least 20%, and proposals for shrinking up to 50% are perfectly reasonable.  So you think the government should grow??????  That's "extremist," "irresponsible," "arsonist," "repulsive," or whatever other name you want to come up with.