Monday, 21 February 2011

Is America a civilised country? A view from Europe

Sometimes it's hard to see your own society objectively when you're living inside it. So, America, this post is about how you look like from outside, at least from Europe. It's an unflattering picture of the achievements and direction of your country on three important dimensions of civilisation: democratic government, criminal justice, and social mobility. I suggest that you are not only falling behind the rest of the civilised world, but also falling short of your own standards.

Now of course Americans may feel unfairly singled out by this exercise. On the one hand you may be offended to be compared unfavourably with 'socialist' Europe - to which I say, then, that you shouldn't mind that you don't meet our socialist standards. A better criticism is that nearly everything I want to criticise about America can also be said of at least some part of Europe, which is really quite a varied place. Britain for example has a similarly ossified class structure; Italy's political theatre produces only low farce. To this I have two responses. First I'm discussing America because America matters - it is big and important and an inspiration to much of the world. So it seems more significant that America's politics is increasingly plutocratic than that little Bulgaria is mafia ridden from top to bottom. Second is what I think is the key difference between Europe and America these days: we still believe in progress, in trying to produce a better civilisation, America seems to have given up.

Electoral politics trumps democracy or government

In American politics the overriding concern at every point is with winning power, but the effective and just use of that power - governance - appears to be an afterthought. The presumption is that if the people can vote to 'throw the bastards out' that provides a sufficiently strong incentive for good governance. However, while retaining this power to the people is of the highest importance, since it prevents severe incompetence or tyranny, it is too blunt a mechanism to promote good governance. That requires civic virtue from the political classes, and an electoral system that supports and promotes it.

Unfortunately one cannot assume that the qualities required for successful electoral combat in a 'winner takes all' system - who cares how you win, so long as you do? - will be particularly democratic in spirit. That is why American politics even in this age of Tea-party 'populism', remains dominated by faceless, spineless bureaucratic insiders without a popular bone in their bodies. People like Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner happen to occupy elected office, but their power comes from office politics, not the people. They are really only corporate functionaries whose primary concern is to promote themselves, and their factions, to power, a goal for which events in the real world and popular opinion are of only instrumental significance.

Not surprisingly these master political operators seem incapable of stepping back from their zero-sum competitive perspective when they are supposed to be governing. Hence both parties are more focused on bringing down the part of the government out of their control than with governing the country. Hence even when Obama wins the presidential election the political combat continues: his health care law may be almost identical to a Republican plan proposed 15 years ago, but because it is his, it is evil and must be stopped. Hence global climate change science is politicised: the point is not whether or not it is important for the country (and the world) that it be acknowledged and addressed, but whether acknowledging it might legitimise and support the governing party in any way. Hence governor Scott Walker's obsession with destroying the unions in Wisconsin (but not the ones who contribute to Republican politicians), rather than actually trying to put the government's finances in order: those unions contribute to Democrat election campaigns and this is really about making it easier for Republicans to win future elections.

But even though the behaviour of such politicians seems salient, one can't really blame this state of affairs on the flawed characters of contemporary politicians and expect that moral exhortations or an influx of untainted 'ordinary folks' would fix it. As a good liberal I must of course point to the importance of social structure: the combative attitudes, moral hypocrisy, bureaucratic focus, and self-serving ruthlessness of contemporary American political operators surely reflects - as well as regenerates - an institutional environment that nurtures and rewards such characteristics. Boehner, Reid, etc. are only symptoms, not the disease.

This competitive style of politics permeates all three branches of American government. Take the legislature, which is basically broken. The point of elections is to win them, not to represent the people. That principle has become firmly entrenched in the electoral system: ubiquitous, sophisticated and shameless gerrymandering of constituencies by partisan state-level committees means that normally only around 10% of House seats are really contested, so the only important election is the primary that chooses the winning party's candidate (often only when incumbents retire). Of course that encourages zealous idiots who only have to win over a few thousand fired up party members to win the nomination and thereby a seat.

America loves the competitive aspect of democracy and has an awful lot of elections (particularly at local and state level). Even with gerrymandering, re-elections are a constant and expensive distraction for legislators (and other office holders). The biggest distraction comes in having to spend lots of time year-round wooing private 'donors' for the huge amounts of money required. These donors are almost entirely made up of special interest lobby groups who are out to get a cheap deal: a few million dollars in political contributions here, a few billion dollars in favourable legislation there. Each congressman may represent the interests and values of his 650,000 constituents in a diffuse way, but it is his donors to whom he is most precisely and concretely held accountable. This is not the same thing as ordinary corruption from which elected representatives personally benefit (like in India). But in some ways it is much worse: the institutional corruption of the whole system to the extent that lobbyists often get to write the small print in the thousands of pages long bills that are 'debated' in the legislature (the legislators themselves don't even have time to read them). The American legislature is basically for sale and the whole world knows it. No wonder Congress's approval ratings are at an all time low (recently hitting 10%).

Take another branch of the US government. The rule of law and a sacred respect for the constitution is a celebrated American achievement. What it basically means is that judges should decide cases 'without respect of persons,' i.e. without regard to the political affiliation, social status, etc of the parties or their lawyers. But the US supreme court has itself become a wholly partisan institution, representing not so much an independent judicial check on the democratic branches of government as an extension of competitive politics as usual (just without term-limits or elections). Legal philosophy? I think not. Originalists may claim to be fixed to an independent and 'historically true' reading of the constitution, yet what they actually do is decide in favour of their party line, e.g. for sweeping executive powers when their party has the presidency, against them when it is out of power. The extension of freedom of speech to the freedom of corporations to spend as much as they like on 'electioneering communications' split the court between Republicans and Democrats as usual (Citizens United). Republican judges supported it because corporations tend to give far more money to Republican candidates, and they were a majority so they won the 'legal debate'. The 2000 'hanging chad' election decision wasn't the start of this shameless politicised jurisprudence - previous liberal courts were just as bad. It only sticks out because so many people were watching.

Criminal Justice: lock them up before they get us!

The treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilization of any country. (Winston Churchill)
America's criminal justice system appears built on the primitive emotions of fear and vengeance. People who do bad things are evil people from whom society must be protected. As a result, enormous numbers of people are locked up: 1% of the adult population - that's the highest rate in the world and 6 times more than Europe, or even America in 1980 (and 15 times more than some European countries). And they are locked up for a very long time: more than 200,000 prisoner are aged over 50. (Not surprisingly, the prison 'industry' itself has become so large that it is also an important lobby group with an interest in endless expansion.) America seems most afraid of young black men, who as a result are in some states more likely to serve a prison-term than graduate from college. But even tens of thousands of children are caught up in this dragnet each year and tried and sentenced as adults. All this fear has no basis in fact - crime rates, even for scary violent crimes, have been falling for twenty years.

American justice is also vengeful and arbitrary. And why not? After all criminals are different from the rest of us and deserve everything they get. The level of brutal violence and rape within US prisons is truly horrendous, but free America seems to just snicker and wink: 'that's just what they deserve'. Tens of thousands are held for years in complete solitary confinement in super-max prisons, often as punishment for minor infractions or for administrative convenience, from which many emerge mentally broken. Prisoners are systematically stripped of their civil and political rights and made into second class citizens. That means they lack legal or political redress for their treatment by and in the criminal justice system. And even when they leave prison they remain pariahs: their convictions often bar them from employment and place onerous restrictions on their liberty, while in many places they are banned from voting for life even in federal elections. The treatment of sex-offenders is particularly ghastly and at the same time quite ridiculous.

All this is quite democratic - it is Americans themselves who have consistently voted for greater punishment including severe mandatory sentencing laws resulting in long sentences for seemingly minor offences that wouldn't even be criminal matters in many countries. As The Economist put it "Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little". The American political system with its plenitude of elected offices (including prosecutors and judges) and state-level sovereignty ensures that America's justice system is a popular one, not a bureaucratic one (as in Europe). And therein lies the problem. All liberal democracies combine bureaucratic features (rights, procedures) and popular features (the will of the majority). Americans are not - I presume - intrinsically more bloodthirsty than people anywhere else, but their system does not place the same faith in institutionalised liberal values as in Europe. In America sensational crimes lead to emotional demands for greater punishment and there is nothing to stop the people from having the instant gratification they crave and have come to feel they have the right to.

Take America's 'peculiar institution' of the death penalty. This was abolished in Europe decades ago because it is incompatible with liberal justice as administered by a neutral civil service (similar to the reasoning behind the US Supreme Court's temporary moratorium decision in the 1970s). But it survives in many American states because it is popular. (Although note that America's populism cuts both ways: several American states abolished the death penalty in the 19th century, well before any European country.) TV stations run all night specials covering executions with lascivious attention to the details - of the last meal, last words, injection procedure, victims' reactions, etc. The people want spectacle, the people want emotional satisfaction. In America, the people get what they want even if it makes them sick.

Class means power

America used to pride itself on its socio-economic mobility, but that dreamboat has sailed. In absolute terms, the stagnation of middle-class incomes since the 1970s means that most Americans cannot realistically expect their children to live better lives than them. In relative terms, Americans are less likely to change their income class from the one they were born into than most of Europe (or Canada), despite firmly believing the opposite. And this stagnation is not the inevitable result of abstract external forces like 'globalisation' or 'technology', but domestic political choices about institutional arrangements. Other countries, most markedly in northern Europe (Sweden, France), have shown that it is quite possible to get richer while advancing socio-economic mobility and equality, if that's what you care about.

It is a truism of international comparisons that if you take America's underclass out of the statistics it looks like an average European country. But it also true that despite having such a large and desperately poor and vulnerable underclass America itself hardly acknowledges its existence anymore, or, if it does, seems to view it with disgust rather than sympathy. These were the people who came to America's televisual attention after Hurricane Katrina: the 90% of New Orleans residents (mostly black) who weren't living the Mardi Gras high life. Without any real evidence but a lot of prejudice, these victims of a natural disaster were overwhelmingly portrayed in the mainstream press as looters, muggers, rapists, and murderers.

The greatest travesty of the American Dream of meritocracy is that although it isn't objectively true, the belief that it is true motivates an excessive emphasis on personal character as determining one's success in life. It is true that poor people have a lot of choices these days. They can work at various minimum wage jobs without benefits; move to other states looking for work; apply for a Harvard scholarship; etc. But in the absence of real paths to meaningful achievement, the mere existence of choices does not justify holding poor people responsible for their state. Despite their salience in the eye of the observer, these choices merely reflect human activity, not effective control of one's life. They do not reflect real options anymore than buying lottery tickets exhibits taking control over one's life (it is no coincidence that the lottery is very popular with poor people). American public opinion here resembles that of the quack doctor or religious charlatan explaining why his remedy isn't working: "It's your fault. You aren't trying hard enough or you don't really believe. Pray harder."

America's power elite are increasingly a closed self-perpetuating class who own an increasing share of the country's assets, have absorbed nearly all the income gains of the last 40 years, and channel their children through the right schools and jobs to positions of power at the top of every institution, from business to politics to academia to Hollywood. Indeed members of this peculiar class move so easily and familiarly between the corner-offices of these institutions, and especially between government and big business, that it is hard to tell where one institution is supposed to end and the other begin! This elite increasingly rules for itself, mistaking its partial perspective and interests for the public interest, in the manner of: "What's good for Goldman Sachs is good for America".

One of the tests of a civilised country is its ability to harness the very real abilities of its elites to advance the country's interests as a whole. The bare minimum is to get them to to acknowledge their subordination to the state and the law like ordinary citizens: to pay taxes and be held accountable for their actions. But America seems to have given up on taxing the rich. We have the recent debacle of the renewal of tax-breaks for the top 2% of earners, but it is more systematic than that. Hedge fund managers for example have successfully resisted efforts to get them to pay any income tax at all. Wealthy individuals and large American companies both make extensive use of tax havens to free themselves from paying the taxes their country's government has decided are fair, and also to escape the onerous burdens of regulatory oversight and scrutiny, a concern they share with the world's corrupt dictators and drug cartels whose money sits next to theirs in the same banks.

Nor does the elite take responsibility. The financial crisis was caused by this very elite, recklessly pursuing massive personal profits without consideration for the risks and harms to the wider economy and their country. In many cases that involved not only greed but deliberate fraud. And yet they have gotten away with it.

As the former chief economist of the IMF has pointed out, big financial crises nearly always have a plutocracy behind them. The plutocracy runs the juiciest parts of the economy and pursues profits by borrowing cheap money and making big bets. At some point their hubris gets the better of them and enough bets go sour to put the whole economy at risk. But instead of going bankrupt as the markets politely suggest, they turn to their friends (often former colleagues) in government for a bail out. The IMF's job always centrally involves telling a government the hard truth that it must choose between its friends and the real economy (and that's a big part of why the IMF is so hated). In America's case the plutocracy got its way once again and is back in bonus territory. Nor has anyone been prosecuted (except for Madoff) for any of the fraud: the astonishing ponzi schemes, product 'miss-selling', and creative financial reporting and accounting that created the fiasco (no doubt partly because Wall Street bankers are so very intertwined with their SEC enforcers). It seems that in America only the little people go to jail.