OWLS HEAD, Maine --- Aaron Burr, our third vice-president whose main claim to fame was killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was the son of a noted theologian and the grandson of the legendary evangelical minister Jonathan Edwards. He was also a son of the Enlightenment and ambivalent about religion.
On his deathbed, when asked by his cousin, also a clergyman, if he wished to seek God's pardon through Jesus Christ — presumably assuring a place in heaven — Burr replied, "On that subject, I am coy."
Is it fair to have the same response, at this time in our history, on the subject of America's greatness?
In a perceptive article in this month's "Foreign Affairs," titled "Can America Be Fixed?" Fareed Zakaria is particularly pessimistic: "The US needs serious change in its fiscal, entitlement, infrastructure, immigration, and education policies, among others. And yet a polarized and often paralyzed Washington has pushed dealing with these problems off into the future, which will only make them more difficult and expensive to solve."
Zakaria’s real concern is not the economic realities that everyone knows we face, but rather the fact that "American democracy is more dysfunctional and commands less authority than ever — and it has fewer levers to pull in a globalized economy."
Spelling out the financial mess we've gotten ourselves into, as Zakaria does, is only the most visible part of the problem:
- "In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country's infrastructure a grade of D and calculated that repairing it would cost $2 trillion."
- "Current annual expenditures for the two main entitlement programs for older Americans, Social Security and Medicare, top $1 trillion. ... Throw in all other entitlement programs ... and the total is $2.2 trillion — up from $24 billion a half century ago, nearly a 100-fold increase."
- "by 2029, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt combined will amount to 18 percent of GDP. It just so happens that 18 percent of GDP is precisely what the government has averaged in tax collections over the last 40 years."
- "The US government currently spends $4 on citizens over 65 for every $1 it spends for those under 18."
Political dysfunction, democratic corruption and an uninterested and flabby citizenry. We had it easy for nearly 200 years. We started with a rich, empty country — at least if you don't count native Americans, and we didn't — in a temperate climate filled with fertile agricultural land, untapped mineral and energy resources, and the brightest and best from around the world flooding our shores.
When the low-hanging fruit had been harvested, we had the additional good fortune to emerge from two world wars unscathed — at least compared to our industrial competition — and thus to enjoy 30 more boom years through the mid-1970s.
And now, while we've certainly faced worse problems in the past — we fought an incredibly debilitating civil war, after all — we're tired, we're old, we're sclerotic. It's not the enormous economic problems we face that are the real concern; it's the structural failings in our democracy that, together, make the road ahead so uncertain.
Take something relatively uninteresting: the gerrymandering of our congressional districts. It may not sound like a major issue but it's one of the key reasons behind the greater polarization of today's politics, which in turn leads to less compromise, less problem solving and less effective democracy. As one observer put it recently, "In a democracy, the voters are supposed to pick the legislators. But in our democracy, the legislators get to pick the voters."
Or something more front and center: gun control. The solution shouldn't be too difficult. Institute strict, federally controlled checks on everyone who buys a gun — whether at a store, a gun fair or in a private transaction — with severe penalties for those who deal in unauthorized sales.
Ban semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines for individuals but authorize gun clubs, again under federal control, where such weapons would be held under lock and key for use only at the club. It shouldn't be complicated except that the NRA — which is really a lobby for gun manufacturers, not gun owners — controls too many congressmen.
Money in politics is worse than ever. Our liberal Democratic president's second inaugural celebrations will cost $50 million, to be raised this year without limits on individual contributions and open to corporate funding. Four years ago corporate donations were banned and $10,000 was the maximum an individual could give. Has four years in the White House changed President Obama so much?
Whatever happened to campaign finance reform, that noble effort by Senators McCain and Feingold from 10 years ago?
The Supreme Court, in a nice reflection of the times, opened the floodgates with its Citizens United ruling. Chief Justice Roberts has been praised since then for his convoluted reasoning in approving Obama's health care law, but what he did in Citizens United is as reprehensible as what Chief Justice Taney did in the Dred Scott case — ruling that people of Africa descent were not citizens and, therefore, not protected by the Constitution. At least Taney's disaster was upended a few years later by the civil war. What's going to overturn Citizens United?
Our congressmen raise money from the financial firms and others they are supposed to be regulating as they pass through Congress en route to million-dollar jobs on K Street. Are they any less corrupt than politicians in those nations we rail against who get their paybacks in a more direct fashion?
Meanwhile, the failed war on drugs has led to a "justice" system with an incarceration rate eight or nine times that of northern European democracies and even three times that of undemocratic China. With the privatization of prisons providing fat profits for the prison industry — or whatever the technical term is for that thriving, uniquely American profit center — and a whole slew of lobbyists supporting it, you can bet Congress won't do anything rational or responsible on the drug front.
Marijuana enforcement laws cost about $10 to $20 billion; add to that another $10 to $20 billion in lost tax revenues. The cost of incarcerating the 500,000 currently in jail for drug-related offenses (up ten-fold from 50,000 before the war on drugs kicked off) is about $50 billion a year; the majority of those are in for marijuana possession and other minor offenses.
Legalize marijuana and that could mean a $75 billion-a-year improvement in our deficit. It's still small potatoes when you're talking about trillions in infrastructure needs and entitlement expenses.
Considering that many of the 500,000 now in jail will find getting hired nearly impossible once they are out of jail, they will just add to our already existing permanent underclass.
Immigration reform may be the bright spot in this catalogue of democratic horrors. An immigration bill could well pass this year, as Republicans finally face up to the fact that their party has the same demographic future as Japan and Russia — only in a lot shorter time frame.
Let's hope that in legitimizing those immigrants already here, the law will provide an easy path to citizenship for foreigners who get degrees from our great universities. Looking at the road ahead though, you have to wonder how many educated foreigners will want to stay.
So as Obama enters his climatic second term, his plate, like his country's, is piled high — and I haven't even mentioned the debt ceiling or sequestration or failing schools or global warming or job growth or the possibility of a war with Iran or the Syrian civil war spreading beyond its borders or the implosion of nuclear-armed Pakistan or…
The big question: is Obama up to it? The bigger question: is our country up to it?
On that subject, I am coy.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker and a museum director. He lives in Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.