Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

Why Washington’s growing irrelevance is good for the country

Zachary Karabell
Dec 13, 2013 19:52 UTC

After three years of sclerosis, Congress is poised to at last pass an actual budget. We’ve been so consumed with the dysfunction of the parties on Capitol Hill that this feat appears significant. In fact, it should be routine. Yet in the context of the past few years, it is anything but.

The budget that passed the House still must wend through the Senate, and it is not exactly a study in legislative daring. It is, however, an actual budget, passed with substantial support from both parties by a vote of 332 to 94 and negotiated by two leaders, one from each party and each chamber — Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington). The bill is the most modest endorsement of the current status quo, which stems from both the automatic and crude 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester, and from the chronic inability of either party to compromise over the past three years.

Even though the only real change over current spending is a modest $60 billion increase (meager in relation to the $15 trillion-plus U.S. economy), conservative groups still condemned it as too profligate and liberal groups assailed it as too draconian. Said Ted Cruz, who may be having mild limelight withdrawal, “The new budget deal moves in the wrong direction: it spends more, taxes more, and allows continued funding for Obamacare…I cannot support it.” Paul Krugman argued the contrary — that the bill is too meager, and does nothing to address the problem of structural, chronic unemployment. Writes Krugman: “if you look at what has happened since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 — what you see is a triumph of anti-government ideology that has had enormously destructive effects on American workers.”

Partisanship aside, it’s tempting to look at the budget deal in one of two ways: our political system has fallen so low that just doing the minimum amount required to be a functional government is seen as a victory, or the fact that it took three years to pass a budget that essentially makes no changes is proof that the system is broken.

A third perspective is even closer to the mark — and cause for optimism. Namely, that both parties’ willingness to pass a budget that no one much likes is a sign that Washington neither can nor will torpedo the country. It is a sign as well that Washington neither can nor will save the country. That’s a far cry from an activist government doing good, or a small government doing much less. But it should come as a positive sign.

The benefits of a ‘de-Americanized world’

Zachary Karabell
Oct 16, 2013 12:02 UTC

This current bout of Washington inanity is approaching its denouement, but however it ends, it has accelerated a trend that has been gathering steam for at least the last five years: the move away from a Washington-centric world and towards a new, undefined, but decidedly less American global system.

The latest broadside was the widely disseminated editorial in China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, which called for a “de-Americanized world” that no longer depends on the dollar and is thus no longer at the whim of “intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States.” That follows on the heels of a Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he called out the American tendency to see itself as an exceptional, indispensable nation. “It is extremely dangerous,” Putin concluded, “to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

The fact that these two powerful critiques of America’s place in the world were written by the United States’ historical adversaries should not be an excuse to dismiss their substance. Yes, these broadsides were politically motivated, and they play to domestic and international audiences that celebrate anyone who stands up to the big, bad Americans. But even a hypocritical adversary can have keen observations, and in both cases, the message was the same: the United States may be a powerful country that controls the world’s reserve currency and has the world’s predominant military, but that does not mean it is the global leader, the world’s policeman or anything other than a first among equals at best.

Online sales tax: a good idea done badly

Zachary Karabell
May 9, 2013 11:31 UTC

On Monday, by a comfortable 69-27 majority, the U.S. Senate passed a controversial bill that will require online retailers with annual sales of more than $1 million to collect state sales taxes. Said Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming: “This bill is about fairness. It’s about leveling the playing field between the brick-and-mortar and online companies, and it’s about collecting a tax that’s already due. It’s not about raising taxes.”

Wait, isn’t it? Leaving aside the anomaly in today’s world of a Republican sponsoring a bill that raises revenue, the proposed law is entirely about raising taxes. The question, then, is whether these are taxes that ought to be raised, and if this is the way to raise them.

The short answers: yes to the first, no to the second. This bill is precisely the wrong way to raise revenue from a growing stream of business. It applies a tax designed for physical entities to new commerce and does so in ways that will do little to help states or to reinvigorate small businesses that are hurting.

The fiscal cliff showed America is a country addicted to crisis

Zachary Karabell
Jan 3, 2013 17:14 UTC

So we did not fall off the cliff. But the reaction to the news of the deal suggests that we’ve become a culture addicted to crisis, because barely had the vote been taken when the spin from politicians, from the mainstream media, and from the cacophonous web was angry, sullen, and negative.

The problem is said to be, in no particular order: Washington, partisanship, Tea Party ideologues, tax-and-spend Democrats, unions, rich people, America, unemployment, underemployment, the shafting of the middle class, the end of the American dream, the untenable deficit, unfunded mandates, and unreasonable expectations. But maybe the problem is none of those; maybe it’s a deepening love affair with crisis. The perverse lure of descent and an inability to break out of the cycle is threatening to overcome us.

What did the deal actually accomplish? Taxes went up significantly for the wealthy and modestly for most, yet the core of lower rates for the vast majority of Americans was retained. Financial markets reacted giddily and made up some lost ground. And for all of the legitimate carping about the dysfunction and polarization of Washington, the deal was actually bipartisan. An overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats backed it in the Senate, while in the House the deal fractured the Republican caucus. The party split its vote and was then joined by a majority of Democrats.

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