Editor’s Note: We thank Professor Yu-Long Ling for contributing this article to www.ChinaUSFriendship.com; the article was first published on the 2013 March issue of the electronic magazine The ELM.
When Plato, the great Greek philosopher, once discussed with his students on the issue of justice, one of them said that when you pay off your debt, you are doing justice. I think that we Americans can agree with this assessment. How to pay off our national debt (over $16 trillion), however, raises a thorny question. A reasonable person understands that once you are in debt, you need to work harder to increase revenue and to decrease spending. Well, this is easier to say than to do.
Congress avoided the fiscal cliff at the end of last year through an agreement to increase taxes of those making more than $400,000 (for individual) or $450,000 (for couples). Unfortunately, it failed to address the second part of the problem, reducing spending. So what we have is a short-term fix. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they oppose any more tax increase and insist on reducing spending. President Obama has taken the position that he is not going to support spending cut without further raising tax. So both sides are only partly right in solving our debt crisis. We can expect another ugly showdown in the next few months. [At the end of February 2013, both sides were not able to reach a compromise on the debt crisis, leading to a mandatory cut of government expenditure across the board.]
Frustrated with our government’s inability to resolve the fiscal crisis, we need to examine why this problem happens only to our system of government. In countries with a parliamentary system of government, such as England and Japan, the head of the executive branch comes from the legislature. Generally, the leader of the majority party in the legislature will be elected as the head of the executive branch. Under this arrangement, whatever the executive head wants, the legislature will approve. If a disagreement between the executive head and the legislature occurs, either the executive head will resign or the legislature will be dissolved, with a new election to follow. Once the new legislature is elected, the new government will start over. Agreement between the two branches is thus assured.
Under our constitution, we adopted the separation of powers principle and created three branches of government. By using the principle of checks and balances, no branch is allowed to dominate the government. As a result, conflict or competition among the branches frequently occurs. Our founding fathers thought that this is the way to make sound decisions for the common good. What they did not anticipate is that many politicians of today care more about their own political agenda than that of their constituents. In order to achieve their own individual goal, they often refuse to compromise to solve problems. Gridlock is the result, and who suffers the most under this dysfunctional system of government? You guessed it, we, the American people.
Unfortunately, the people are not blameless in this situation. The government represents the people. It cannot create national debts without the people’s demand or approval. Raising tax or spending cut will inevitably hurt some groups of people. Thus, we happily elect politicians who promise not to raise tax or to cut government services. The government has to keep borrowing money to keep it running. As a result, we are in this terrible predicament.
British conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke once said that “Democracy breeds mediocrity.” Unfortunately, I cannot disagree. We chose our leaders and are stuck with them. It is sad, but true.