Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Separation of Powers is Not a Radical Defect of the Constitution

Let's not even mention the reporting (especially the almost intentionally unlearned and misleading CNN on this) save to say that according to them everything is about to fall apart, collapse, and it will be the fault of Congress and the Tea Party folk especially. Obama on the other hand is a willing compromiser and an altogether noble man.  So let's not mention any of that.  Let's just say that George Will has it right in today's WaPo in the form of a mini-lecture on separation of powers.  He is also right in calling for Geithner's resignation and also hits it on the nose when he calls Obama a Huey Long with a better tailor!  Oh, those little arts of popularity, they're not working so good for this president!

In my opinion Boehner is going to get his way (largely) on his two phase plan, the Senate Dems will go along with it, and Obama will sign it.  He brought up Reagan in his talk, but forgot to mention that Reagan signed similar plans every six months or so during his presidency, which Obama says he refuses to do.  But he will not veto any of the plans put in front of him that Congress  passes, and there will be more than one.
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Discussions - 21 Comments

The problem may occur in the conference, when the Senate conferees will make unacceptable demands. Then the onus will be on Boehner.

It would not hurt will to acknowledge that other countries do function passably with parliamentary systems.

AD, do you mean like Greece or Italy?

I know lots of people who are furious about the Boehner plan, calling him a sellout. Pointing out that his plan may have a chance for passing as opposed to the plans those folks like, which are of the snowball's chance in Hell variety, has little effect in the argument. Apparently, sometimes the Right needs reminders about the separation of powers, too. How do folks think Congressional conservatives can reduce federal spending on their own?

Kate, see Peter's latest post. But first the House has to pass something to get to conference. And that requires taking the risk of default seriously.

Steve, I did and responded. What really boggles is that Democrats and especially the president seem to ignore that fact the default is a problem for the US because we spend so much more than the economy can sustain. Raising the debt ceiling is just a dodge, another band-aid on the real problem -- like putting a band-aid on cancer.

House Republicans aren't so much focused on your economic premise (which is contestable) as on a political premise, that so much spending is constitutionally bad, especially if it is economically sustainable.

Kate, you have never shown yourself here to have much of a sense of humor in this venue, so I will not take it that way.

Do you really intend to offer Greece, which may have Europe's most asinine political culture, and Italy (a country with declining debt ratios and ample domestic savings but suffering contagion effects) as examples of the mode or norm of parliamentary government? Is it really your contention (given that the antecedent observation that 'contries with parliamentary government do function passably') that such countries

a. do not function passably, ever; or

b. countries with separation of powers invariably function better?

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Countries with well-established constitutional systems (present with scant interruption over a period of 40-odd years) generally have parliamentary systems. There are a scatter of European statelets with archaic systems, France and Finland with a hybrid system, Switzerland with its plural executive, and four countries with separation-of-powers (the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Botswana). On what basis do you say those four countries are better governed than their peers?

You should have taken that with my grin. I abhor emoticons, but maybe need them.

I think America needs a separation of powers. Maybe other countries do, too, but I would not say that all nations need such a system. I don't think a parliamentary system is panacea for political ills and neither do you.

Do you really think so? I am reading that the federal debt "as a share of GDP was 40.3% in 2008, 53.5% in 2009, and 62.2% in 2010, and it is estimated at 72% this fiscal year." (quoting Pete DuPont in the WSJ, but I have seen the figure elsewhere.) I am also reading that the ratings agencies are or are considering lowering our credit rating. This is not really a surprise, since our debtors, like China, think we spend too much and say so publically. Maybe they will continue to lend us money, but I don't see why.

Do you really think such debt is economically sustainable? Never mind the consitutional issues at the moment -- I am not sure about those, except that I doubt the Founders ever intended us into this kind of debt. Sometimes I think a visit to the Trinity Church graveyard would show Hamilton's tomb rocking from his rolling inside it.

But how do we sustain a debt of 72% of GDP and growing?

A debt of 72% of domestic product is sustainable, provided that it is stable and you have a committment to balancing most future budgets and servicing the debt. Even Italy's debt would be sustainable under those circumstances. The trouble is, as the debt rises, your margin for error and vulnerability to shocks (like the real estate crash) declines.

Whenever you state a 'need', you have an implicit purpose in mind. If you state a 'need' as global, you are saying the country cannot function without it, which is an incredible assertion (most particularly when the governments of the United States, California, and Illinois are so dysfunctional).

For the moment, I'll buy that, but look at the rate of increase. Where do we go from there? Isn't that the real problem? Bad enough the "now" spending; what about the "then" spending? Don't we have to get some kind of grip on that?

I don't see how that is a non-issue. Apparently the ratings agencies and our debtors don't, either.

That was #1, #2, yes, the people of the US are amazingly prosperous, looked at in the context of history. How much "need" can our government claim for social programs? Gee whiz!

I have some young friends who do missions work, or a couple of others who are now in foreign countries on diplomatic postings and all are stunned by the poverty, which endemic where they are. One of my sons, my youngest boy, has adopted US style poverty as a lifestyle option. (Picture a bemused smiley face here.) He is a dumpster diver extraordinaire and brags about what he finds thrown away, maybe especially foodstuffs. Although you should see the gifts he has given me and I am always suspicious of dumpster theft. He frequents free stores and secondhand stores, as well. He is not on public assistance. People give him small jobs; he earns money and it has taken him real effort to avoid permanent employment. A free spirit, people tell me, and there is simply no accounting for taste.

My rambling point is this, the stories of his experiences and friends in that underclass give me this perspective on the volitional nature of much poverty in America. This is not just about him; we make acquaintances of all sorts and there is also my husband's response to panhandlers which is always to buy them a meal and have a conversation. The more public assistance is there, the more people choose to avail themselves of it because it is in their self-interest.

That is about entitlement, but so much of our government is about entitlement and not just of of the poor but of all sorts of people, even corporations. It is astonishing what our government "needs" to spend money on.

Yesss, the problem is they keep adding to it because the legislature and executive cannot agree on a portfolio of spending cuts and tax increases necessary to stop adding to it. Remember, though, 'divided government' is absolutely optimal. Mr. Madison told us so.

There is truth to what you say. The trouble is, a good deal of the affluence is baked in the cake by quality improvements in product or process. As for what the government must spend money on: you cannot pay soldiers 1928 wages. You have to pay wages which take account of productivity improvements in every other sector.

To your first, isn't a big argument for reducing government is that a bureaucracy as large as ours accumulates power: there is far less separation of power and that non-branch of government just keeps aggregating power to itself. (See the latest post by Mr. Adams as an example of that.)

I do take your point about wages. Our military is keeping two of my sons in for careers, although my boys know it will not make them rich. Aside from principle, those careers will keep them comfortable enough. In addition, depending on when they retire, they will still be young enough to pursue other careers wherein they might accumulate wealth for their heirs. A volunteer military will require more expenditure and it is really a little astounding what we pay to keep the families of our folks in the military. However, given the world as it is, we need to have professional miltary. How do we escape the necessity of national defense?

That necessity is about 20% of the federal budget. It looks like the only place Democrats are willing to cut. Wages and benefits for other federal jobs are (last I read) often higher than equivalent jobs in the private sector, especially if retirement benefits are considered.

What the heck, anywhere you poke our government there is bloat.

1. Federal regulatory agencies can be nuisance-mongers but they consume comparatively little in the way of public expenditure. The federal police, prisons, courts, tax collectors, and regulators chew up about 4% of the federal budget. You might be able to garner some savings by eliminating overstaffing. It is conceivable also that in some instances command-and-control regulations could be readily replaced with less expensive or economically more efficient alternatives. An economist who studies the question (Kip Viscusi) has said (I believe) that regulations administered by public agencies are among the least potent means to induce safety improvements, for instance. You also have federal intrusions into intra-mural economic relationships (as is the case with much of what goes under the heading of general labor law, occupational health and safety law and civil rights law). The thing is, you need granular knowledge to know what to cut here and it still will net you only modest sums.

2. There is a great deal you can cut, but you are never going to get it to a point (in a modest time frame) where the propensity to spend falls below the rate of current tax collection. Or, at least, you are never going to get there without being perfectly insouciant about social consequences. (Which one of the regulars here appears to be).

Yes, it does seem unlikely that any great reduction will happen tomorrow or the next day, but shouldn't a reduction process begin? Really, it should have begun years ago and we wouldn't be in this mess now. Of course, the 2008 election was not our most expensive ever just in terms of campaign expenses.

That 4% you mention, what is the actual number? 4% of $3.83 trillion is a heck of a lot of money. And hoorah for Kip Viscusi, who is not the only one to make that point.

I know people who are swamped with debt from buying things they "need", which is always largely a matter of buying what they want. We as a nation have done roughly the same thing. The world does not owe us all that we borrow from it; we are spending other people's money at an astonishing rate. Maybe we are not today at the point where we absolutely must deal with the social consequences no one (all right, very few) wants to deal with for a variety of reasons, not all political.

My whole life, and certainly yours, people, economists and a few politicians, have been saying that US spending is unsustainable. I heard Steny Hoyer on NPR saying the whole problem with our debt is the Republicans complaining about it. Granted, people and nations will probably keep "investing" in America because it has historically been safe. As I said before, I don't see why they would keep doing that given the way our government spends their money.

Could we tell the world that we are claiming some of their past investment as payment for attempting to maintain world peace since the last world war? We probably have it coming. Would they buy that, forgive some debt, and keep investing,do you suppose?

4% of $3.83 trillion is a heck of a lot of money.

My point was the regulatory aspect of the state was not a comparatively large consumer of public funds. About half of that consists of the federal police and prisons, so unless you think the customs and border constabulary is a frill, you have to take care with reducing their budgets.

And hoorah for Kip Viscusi, who is not the only one to make that point.

Why hoorah? He is doing his job when he makes valid empirical points, not when he validates your worldview.


My whole life, and certainly yours, people, economists and a few politicians, have been saying that US spending is unsustainable.

No, it is the debt accumulation that is unsustainable, and that has been an episodic problem.

I took your point, and while I don't think any of those things you list are any less necessary than the military for our security and defense, there are regulatory agencies and departments from Agriculture to the EPA -- all sorts of things we don't need or do not need to the extent we have them. The duplication of responsibilities and overlap of effort seems incredibly expensive. Even within the military, there are all sorts of programs that seem so unnecessary. (Son #4 is in PR for the Marines and some of the things he covers are absurd expenditures.) Every department of government has overseas aid programs. Why? The regulation of minutia is not just annoying, it costs something in effort and paying people to monitor those things. Even within departments, there are diversity officers and sexual orientation compliance officers (whatever that means) and human resources personnel who, frankly, all have to find reasons to keep their jobs and make stuff up to keep themselves busy.

Seriously, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money, as Everett Dirksen said. That quote is one reason why I meant it when I said my whole life I have been hearing about how US spending is unsustainable. I heard Dirksen say it on TV when I was young. I can remember how my dad laughed; he was a Republican then.

I know America is a marvelous engine of prosperity and makes any individual's capacity for managing debt insignificant in comparison. But apparently the way to manage such debt is to demand increased taxation of the American people or to induce inflation. I don't know anyone who has budgeted for either of those. There is a reason "no tax" pledges by politicians goes over so well.

I will say "hoorah" for people who make valid empirical points, as I hope my worldview is built on those.

1)"It would not hurt will to acknowledge that other countries do function passably with parliamentary systems."

2))"the governments of the United States, California, and Illinois are so dysfunctional."

I agree with 1), but my standard for function passably yields a 3) that would require you to admit that the United States, California and Illinois function at a level above passably.

Also in reply to Kate: "As I said before, I don't see why they would keep doing that given the way our government spends their money."

Our government is a pretty good steward of money, at least on a function passably level. That is we at least have a "rational basis" for how we spend money. That is never going to satisfy anyone who wants to dig down to specifics and employ a sort of strict scrutiny.

So it is somewhat funny when you say: "The regulation of minutia is not just annoying, it costs something in effort and paying people to monitor those things."

Yeah and the paper work reduction act, actually increases paper work!

"Even within departments, there are diversity officers and sexual orientation compliance officers (whatever that means) and human resources personnel who, frankly, all have to find reasons to keep their jobs and make stuff up to keep themselves busy."

True enough about diversity officers and sexual orientation compliance officers (whatever that means, if you don't know I don't either). I suppose that getting rid of DADT eliminates the need for sexual orientation compliance officers!

In the military at least these EO/diversity NCO's and officers simply get a title, and have to check the box on certain powerpoint slides/trainning on a yearly basis. Maybe they help race relations in the Army...maybe they don't...but generally they provide some sort of process that ensures a sort of rational basis type review that checks what might otherwise be racist comments or actions which are seen as discriminatory or arbitrary and capricious.

But it is not like these NCO's or officers do this as a full time job, it is more like an additional task that looks good and earns points in a leadership catagory. Some of these folks are excellent NCO's and officers who are proficient at other job aspects.

So EO NCO's grade- range:C+ to B+.

"human resources personnel who, frankly, all have to find reasons to keep their jobs and make stuff up to keep themselves busy."

Pretty much, but this is really the product created by English professors :)

After all if you think about entrepreneurship, it isn't writting a flowery business plan/model that really brings $.

So it is quite possible that a huge chunk of jobs are somewhat on the fluff/nit pick side.

Consider McDonalds(as ROB does) (a great business, that is the product in some respect of the laws of Illinois(and by extension the quite passable politics of Illinois).

McDonalds has its own university, and graduates typically earn salaries that compare favorably with those of community colleges, and yet you won't find them reading the classics of literature.

Folks admit that education is in a bubble, and what is meant by this is, that in part the knowledge gainned is not immediately reduceable to a productive vocation or career, or if it is, may not be worth its cost.

Education might enlarge the human mind, but if it does achieve this end, often times it discovers that it has created excess capacity.

This excess capacity is prevelant and yields: "human resources personnel who, frankly, all have to find reasons to keep their jobs and make stuff up to keep themselves busy."

Or basically people that sell services no one necessarily needs, but which in the aggregate compromise a massive chunk of all available jobs.

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