American Miasma.

September 10, 2013

Lately, the stench of mediocrity has infused the American landscape, a thick, unrelenting smog.
Our economy remains mired in a low-growth grind, even as the government data continues alluding to better things ahead.
The economic figures have begun to feel like counterfeit currency. Exciting at first glance. Ultimately devoid of substance.
Our foreign affairs appear listless. Reactive. And ill conceived.
Our political landscape looks more like an exclusive country club than a once grand experiment in political idealism. All of the benefits are accrued by the club's exclusive membership. While the surrounding community enviously looks on, the neighborhood growing bleaker by the day.
This nation was once comprised of "American Exceptionalists," individuals who so believed in the American ideal that they felt its impact on the world at large could only be positive.
Today, much of the population looks more like "American survivalists," simply trying to stay ahead of an unrelenting pessimism. Decrying the inability to get ahead. Worrying about what the future holds for our children, and theirs.
These days, what transpires in the nation's capital under the moniker of governance has become more impediment than benefit.
The U.S. Economy...
In the fifth year of the recovery, sober analysts continue to seek out signs of sustainable growth.
The U.S. labor participation rate sits at a 35-year low. Today, more prospective American workers have simply given up on employment than any time since the Carter administration. Apropos, given that the current administration bears an uncanny resemblance to that of President Carter.
Carter's tenure was marked by persistent economic difficulties, disjointed foreign policy, and a notable decline in the nation's sense of optimism.
Both Carter and Obama were initially lauded for their intelligence and thoughtful approach to governance. Both won Nobel Prizes.
Unfortunately, both administrations will likely parallel each other in their lack of economic vision, lack of executive leadership and an inability to achieve consensus in domestic and foreign affairs.
As economists wring their hands over the lack of economic growth, business owners can immediately point to a common, underlying cause: Obamacare.
While the administration inherited an economy that would have challenged the savviest of leaders, the decisions made after taking office only hindered the nation's economic trajectory.
A young, inexperienced executive relied too much upon hyper-idealistic advisors who prodded him to use an inventory of post-election political goodwill and spend it on "the most pressing issue of his presidency." The issue that could define his legacy. One that even the Clintons failed to surmount: healthcare reform.
So, instead of dealing with the nation's most pressing issue, its flailing economy, the president decided to overhaul the biggest area within that flailing economy.
The administration devoted itself to a legislative overhaul that was and remains completely antithetical to a revival of U.S. labor markets. Because no reasonable, forward-looking business owner could hire employees so long as the uncertainty of a new healthcare system looms ahead.
Even as the economy began to show "green shoots," businesses refrained from hiring. That lack of job creation denied a fledgling recovery the fuel it needed to achieve "escape velocity."
Perhaps in 20 years we will recognize the validity of the administration's decisions. But today, the fact remains: the sole growth areas of the labor market are temporary, service and hospitality jobs. These are not the jobs that comprise a healthy, growing economy.
Was healthcare reform important? Yes. But was it urgent? No. The singular most urgent priority when the president took office was the creation of jobs. The nation was struggling. Reform could have waited. Been given more time and resources when the nation's employment situation had strengthened. Instead, a rash decision resulted in a controversial, incomplete reform of the nation's most important sector. And simultaneously extinguished the economic recovery.
U.S. Foreign Policy...
Paging Henry Kissinger.
When the current administration took office, the common perception was one of optimism regarding our foreign policy. Following eight long years of war and diplomatic erosion, this president was going to make America beloved again. We would heal diplomatic relationships. And hold dialogues with our enemies.
Then, reality set in.
Foreign affairs present difficult paths to navigate in the best of times. This administration did not inherit the best of times. And a lack of strategic vision quickly revealed itself.
Machiavelli said that it is better to be feared, than loved. Today, we are neither.
The Arab Spring. Iran. Egypt. Libya. North Korea. Now, Syria. Each has been handled in a way that has conveyed neither strength nor dexterity. During recent efforts regarding Syria, Russia's Vladimir Putin openly mocked the U.S. administration, before stepping in to bail it out.
Two months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Middle East attempting to reignite stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Simultaneously, more strategically pressing areas of the Middle East were in conflagration. The world puzzled as the U.S. followed a generic, outdated playbook.
More recently, following the revelations of Syrian atrocities, Secretary Kerry tried to rally the international community behind an impending U.S. and British military strike. Russia said nyet. China made veiled threats. Then, the Brits left us at the altar. Decided against supporting us.
Only then did the administration meekly decide to seek Congressional support. If not for Vladimir Putin's diplomatic victory staving off the need for a Congressional vote, the administration would have certainly been rejected there, as well.
The administration's standing has been markedly weakened in the international community. The result? A diminished image of this nation's ability to lead on the global stage.
U.S. Political Landscape...
The U.S. economy and foreign policy can be redressed by the next administration in relatively short shrift. The U.S. political landscape, however, often appears damaged beyond repair. The ability to solve domestic political shortcomings are, for now, beyond the scope of those in power.
No book better shows the lack of balance in our nation's capital than Mark Leibovich's This Town (NYT review here), a scathing, fact-laden portrayal of the state of affairs in Washington, D.C.
While the rest of the country struggles for some semblance of the American dream, D.C. has surpassed Silicon Valley as the nation's wealthiest community. In fact, seven of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country are in and around the capital. As is the nation's highest per capita income.
Leibovich deftly reveals the self-enriching chicanery taking place in Washington.
To outsiders, the nation's capital seems like a political laboratory where two parties with opposing ideologies struggle to gain the upper hand in an attempt to better the lives of every American.
Unfortunately,on closer inspection, this "ideological struggle" begins to look like an abject fabrication.
In D.C., the two parties live symbiotically off of each other. Outwardly fighting, but inwardly enriching the members of a good-old-boys network that graduates from elected office into multi-million-dollar jobs that often work to undo the very efforts accomplished in office.
In D.C., insider status is the law of the land. If an insurance company needs a healthcare bill defeated, who better to lobby on their behalf than a senator or congressman who helped pass the Affordable Care Act? Someone who knows the players personally. Can arrange breakfast meetings. Can pass along favors. Can get things done.
In D.C., corporate America pays billions to hire former politicians to undo their past victories.
So Many Politicians, So Little Will to Change...
Amidst the obvious perversion of a once great system, where is the collective will for change?
Missing for one simple reason: there is more money to be made through the perpetuation of our problems.
Real solutions are often painful and unpopular. Unpopular solutions don't win votes. A lack of votes can't sustain a political career.
So, it's easier to tell constituents what they want to hear.
Nor do the lobbyists have any interest in achieving real solutions. Because indecision pays.
If a highly paid lobbyist is successful in the cause for which he's paid, then the client corporation may no longer see a need to pay the lobbyist. So, like the stock market, K-Street often benefits by D.C.'s perpetual indecisiveness.
As a result, if you're not a Washington insider, you are left with two less-than-desirable outcomes:
1) An inability to problem solve among our political leadership. Instead of attacking the roots of problems, they are content to cover the issues in vote-winning band aids. These temporary fixes cause issues to worsen over time, but allow for short-term political grandstanding and self-indulgent, hollow political claims.
2) A complete lack of will to tackle the nation's most pressing issues. Because the solutions are often politically untenable. While beneficial in the long run, the medicine can be hard for voters to swallow. And politicians shudder at the thought of anything that upsets voters, so harming reelection chances.
There was a time when successful, accomplished and sometimes wealthy citizens were drawn to Washington in an effort to tackle projects about which they were passionate.
Today, ambitious people go to Washington to become successful, accomplished and wealthy. Once there, they do whatever it takes to remain. When voted out, they trade their influence for lucrative lobbying jobs and suckle off the public-sector teat for as long as possible.
A Time for Optimism...
Put down those pills. Get off that roof. There is reason for optimism.
Information technology enables us to monitor and publicize the behavior of less-than-honorable public servants. Further, there is a growing outcry against the transgressions of our elected officials. At some point, that outcry will achieve a critical mass at which one or more of the following might occur, and begin to drain the capital swamp:
1) The electorate will recognize the need for term limits. Electoral victories and political appointments were not meant to be lifelong positions. Nor should politicians and their staffs be able to enrich themselves in the tidal waters of corporate cash to the detriment of the system, or the integrity of the nation. Go, serve, and leave. We must institute term limits.
2) The electorate will recognize the need for a third party. Voters will rail against the symbiotic, mutually enriching relationship that exists between Republicans and Democrats. Where else in our lives are we satisfied with a duopoly? Prevent the two major parties from mutually crushing any third-party options and give the electorate a chance to keep candidates honest. Right. Left. And then there's the middle. And most the nation is in the middle. Let them vote as such.
3) Separation of State and K Street. Corporate wealth and influence must be prevented from standing in the way of true progress. But that will never be the case so long as politicians and their staffs can leave office and immediately attain lucrative lobbying jobs. If you've been in office, as a candidate or staff member, you must wait seven years before you can lobby. Period.
Warren Buffett, ever the optimist, has said, "There have always been tough times. But America has always continued to move forward."
And we will. I'm betting on it.

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