Was the American crisis caused by too much democracy?

US House of Representatives passes debt-limit bill

US House of Representatives

The Republicans and Democrats have finally agreed a deal on raising the debt ceiling and both houses of Congress have passed it. The agreed-upon bill has a lot of problems and has no coherent strategy for reducing the deficit other than trillions of dollars of cuts and allowing the US government to borrow trillions more money.

Given the dog’s dinner President Obama has made of trying to recover their economy, however, I think it’s a lot better than it could have been, although I understand why many Democrats were immensely annoyed about the massive compromises Obama has made.

A part of me is annoyed that Republicans seem to be a bit like the Eurocrats who are bailing out Greece (I know that sounds weird given the gulf between their political views) – rigid, completely unwilling to compromise, with little regard to what actually appears to be working and of the trust of their constituents. In fact, just half a year ago, the GOP commissioned a report saying that the best way of tackling deficits is with 85% spending cuts and 15% rises in tax revenue. A couple of weeks ago the Democrats offered almost exactly that – and the rises weren’t even direct tax rises, just revenue gained from closing tax loopholes. But it’s taken until now to reach a deal?

Another part of me sort of understands what they’ve been doing and thinks that the whole ordeal hasn’t been too bad. While I don’t really trust either Republicans or Democrats to handle the US economy, I do believe in low taxes and small government, and I think large-scale spending cuts are necessary in both Britain and the US. The job of Congress (and, theoretically at least, our Parliament) is to hold the government to account. Most of the new Republican Congressman were elected last year on a Tea Party platform of brutal spending cuts and low taxes, so they and their voters have pretty much got what they wanted.

However, most voters are fed up with the Punch and Judy politics in their country. 72% of Americans have nothing but derision for Congress after this ordeal, but I think this is just a culmination of the increasing division in US politics in the last few decades. Generally, little progress happens – it seems like American politics is basically a catfight between Democrats and Republicans, between big government and rampant capitalism with no grey areas in between.

Lack of stuff actually getting done in Britain is usually down to the fact that we can’t do anything, because most of the decisions lie either with quangos, human rights judges or the European Union – in other words, because of lack of democracy. Could the same problem in America be down to too much democracy, too many elections (Congress is elected every two years)? Or maybe it’s because of the strong two-party system?

In principle, I am very attracted to anything that holds the government to account – whether it’s elected senators, the power of Parliament (or Congress) over the exective, direct democracy or anything else. I think there is much we in Britain can learn from the United States, Switzerland and possibly other countries in this respect, and I wish people in this country had more power than they do. Is there a chance, though, that if you go too far, nothing gets done? It is, after all, because of direct democracy that women in Switzerland didn’t get the vote until 1971.

There are other factors in it than simply too much democracy, and all I’ve read about them is in Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. I’m sure there are plenty others who are better qualified to comment on American politics. But it does make me wonder what went wrong.


Smaller is greater

What is the smallest thing near me? Well obviously, everything is made up of tiny particles, so in a sense “everything” is the answer. If this wasn’t the case, nothing in the universe would work. And of course we are continually discovering that these tiny particles are made up of even tinier particles and quarks may actually be supersymmetric strings or whatever.

If all this is true then great; small is great. And, as a more general point, being small is what makes things – at least a lot of things – work.

For example, computers are more useful, and easier to use, because they are a lot smaller than they used to be.

Most people would rather read a reasonably small, short blog post divided up into small, short paragraphs, than a long sea of words with no spaces in between.

Smaller countries, particularly in Europe, are generally happier ones. Appreciating, finding satisfaction in and reminding yourself of all the little, daily good things in life, makes you happier than if you want everything to be BIG, or if you adopt the attitude that you’re either number 1 or you’re nothing.

Also, excuse me for politicising the question, but if a country is small, has a smaller government and if that government devolves its power to smaller, local authorities, things in that country work better, and the country is wealthier and happier. Why is Switzerland far wealthier than the EU as a whole and the second happiest country in the world? Why is Hong Kong wealthier than China, Singapore wealthier than Malaysia, and the U.S. GDP in excess of $14 trillion?

Answer: because all these countries are either small, have small governments and enthusiastically devolve power, or have a cultural mindset that sees small as beautiful. Or all three in the case of Switzerland.

Whether you’re talking about politics, ways of life or science, small is great and beautiful. That’s all I have to say.