America’s Broken System

BERKELEY – The tax bill that US Republicans have doggedly pushed through Congress is not as big a deal as many are portraying it to be. It is medium-size news. The big news – the much more weighty and ominous news – lies elsewhere.


Of course, medium-size is not nothing. If the tax bill does clear its final hurdle – a conference committee must reconcile the Senate-approved bill with that of the House of Representatives – and become law, it will complicate the tax system considerably, as it opens many loopholes. It won’t have any impact on economic growth – positive or negative – but it would have an impact on the government’s finances, causing revenues to decline by the equivalent of about 1% of national income.

The missing resources would most likely be transferred to the top 1% of earners, raising their share of total income from 22% to 23%. The top 0.01% would probably gain the most, with their share of income rising from 5.1% to 5.5%. In this sense, the tax plan would be another brick – not a huge brick, but a medium-size brick – in the increasingly impregnable fortress of American plutocracy.

But the bill may well not become law at all. Consider the Republicans’ efforts earlier this year to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) – an effort that, it now seems clear, was pure Dingbat Kabuki.

The Republicans didn’t actually want to take responsibility for changing the health-care financing system, much less strip their own constituents of health care. But the party’s propaganda arm had worked so hard to convince its base that Obamacare represented a clear and present danger to the country that its leaders had to act as if they were making a serious effort to fulfill their promise to repeal and replace it.

So a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the bill, expecting, with reasonable confidence, that it would be blocked in the 100-member Senate, where fewer than 40 of the 52 Republicans actually wanted it to pass. Had any of the three Republican senators who voted against the bill – John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – made a different choice, there were probably about five more who would have stepped in to nix it.

The same thing may be happening with the tax reform. It depends on whether at least three of the ten Republican senators who have raised objections are serious, or are playing a different game of Dingbat Kabuki: seeking to trick their constituents into thinking that they went the extra mile to try to help them, and are not puppets of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But, regardless of whether the tax bill survives the reconciliation process and becomes law, the big news won’t change: the Anglo-Saxon model of representative government is in serious trouble. And there is no solution in sight.

For some 400 years, the Anglo-Saxon governance model – exemplified by the republican semi-principality of the Netherlands, the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, and the constitutional republic of the United States of America – was widely regarded as having hit the sweet spot of liberty, security, and prosperity. The greater the divergence from that model, historical experience seemed to confirm, the higher the likelihood of repression, insecurity, and poverty. So countries were frequently and strongly advised to emulate those institutions.

Nobody would dare offer that same advice today. The UK, having been thrown into devastating austerity by Conservative and Liberal leaders after the global economic crisis, is now being led by the Conservatives toward a messy and damaging Brexit. And, in the US, the election of President Donald Trump heralded the age of “alternative facts” and “governance by tweet,” overseen by an erratic and ignorant leader who is clearly in over his head.

When Trump was first elected, some argued that it did not have to be a disaster. After all, the optimists pointed out, President Ronald Reagan had been more a “chief of state” than a “chief executive,” as had George W. Bush.

As divisive as Chief of State Trump would be, according to this view, he wouldn’t derail policy, because electing a Republican president is more like electing the Republican Party establishment. And that bench was very deep and very competent, despite its weakening in recent years.

The optimists were wrong. After nearly a year in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, the Republicans haven’t achieved any of their four policy goals: repeal and replacement of Obamacare, infrastructure development, trade-policy reform, or even tax reform. This points to a broken system of politics and governance, one that Americans seem to have no idea how to fix.

The US remains the world’s preeminent superpower. But doubts are intensifying over whether it’s still up to the job. In this context, the Republicans’ tax reform, however economically indefensible and blatantly unfair it is, is far from America’s biggest concern.

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

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