Press-Republican

January 6, 2013

A call for extreme independence

Colin Read, Everybody's Business
Press-Republican

— Some readers complain that I am far too conservative, while others lament that I am far too liberal. I actually pride myself as a pragmatic independent, and try to be immune to the group-think of either party.

It is ironic that this nation so enthusiastically cast off artifacts of British rule but retained a political system that differed little from the monarchy. We have our House and they have their Commons, we have our Senate and they have their Lords, we have our president and they have a monarch that could, ostensibly, veto any legislation. Both nations maintain a strong sense of party affiliation.

Actually, I would prefer there be either many parties, or perhaps no parties at all. I see little to gain from the self-reinforcing and self-rewarding party system. Parties force us all into group-think and force candidates to subjugate their own ideals.

Have you ever heard of dysfunctional Nebraska politics? Me neither. Long ago, they broke the grip of of party politics. During the Great Depression, Nebraska amended its constitution to abolish the bicameral system and instead adopted one legislative body. They also abolished parties. 

The primary elections for their representatives winnows the field down to two candidates who go head to head in the general election. Candidates do not run as Democrats or Republicans, just Nebraskans. In the process, Nebraska discovered that the cost of legislation went down significantly, and efficiency was raised dramatically. In the year following their amendment to take some politics out of politics, the cost of governing was halved and the number of bills successfully navigating their legislature increased.

Nebraska did so because they believed their elected officials should run on their own records and ideals, and that their actions should be based on convictions, not the dictates of faraway party leaders and moneybags.

I wish our system was much less political. We should have the opportunity to vote for someone who clearly articulates a philosophy to which each of us can relate, or at least decide whether we can accept or appreciate, regardless of party affiliation.

Too much time, effort and dollars have been “invested” in the two-party system. I can’t imagine our divided nation could adopt the successful Nebraska model. In fact, the rules are even rigged to make difficult the formation of third parties.

If one accepts a two-party inevitability, then we ought to hope for at least two viable parties to maintain a modicum of realistic choice. Unfortunately, the Republicans have been doing whatever they can to implode from within, a quality that was at one time the sole domain of Democrats. The implosion of the Republican Party may make Democrats gleeful, but it is painful for our democracy.

Of course, we have little sympathy for those who rain hardship upon themselves. During the Bush administration, to cater to their base, the Republicans adopted a rule that dictated legislation would only be brought to a vote on the floor if a majority of their majority supported it. At that point, the Speaker of the House became the speaker of his own party.

Fortunately, John Boehner, the current speaker for his party, momentarily became the Speaker of the House in the eleventh hour when he allowed the House to vote on a two-month kick of the can of the fiscal cliff sequestration. He broke with divisive party politics only under unrelenting pressure from global markets that would have likely unwound had he not. In doing so, the albeit short-time-horizon will of the people was satisfied.

Three swords of Damocles still hang over us — the punted sequester, the debt limit and, on March 27, the budget to replace a continuing resolution when we punted on Oct. 27 of last year. We face the same dysfunction in the ensuing few months to which we have become painfully accustomed. I can only hope our nation’s leaders will act in a bipartisan way.

Such bipartisanship will require a huge leap of consciousness. Here’s why.

Our nation operates on a cooked set of books that would be illegal were we held to private-sector accounting standards.

We allow various government entities to assume a pension fund rate of return that is twice as high as private sector companies are permitted, which itself is twice the yield on 10 year Treasury bonds.

We don’t force our government to produce a balance sheet that shows the level of unfunded promises we have made to ourselves, for which our children will pay. If we did, by some estimates, debt per person would rise to $300,000, by far the world’s highest.

And, we don’t have the courage to tell those who believe we are entitled to a Social Security pension that the system will soon be broke.

If only we had a non-partisan house from which we could have these debates, influenced not by what short-run-oriented leaders want to have happen, but what will really happen. I realize I am hoping for a lot. I won’t bet the farm, or the House, or a cup of coffee, on it.

Winston Churchill was correct. Our nation always does the right thing, but only after every other possibility is exhausted.

Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.