Why America Works

Jim Jaffe



The dysfunctional government epidemic endlessly tracked by the media has yet to reach my outlier within-the-Beltway neighborhood.


Basic services including electricity, water, cable and wifi are reliable.  Local government keeps the streets safe and paved, and the libraries and schools open and functional.  Regional government keeps the buses and subways running and our national government sends me a monthly retirement check, collects taxes at year’s end and reimburses Medicare providers when I get sick while keeping our drugs safe and financial markets from exploding or imploding.


Those are all big jobs and they’re all done imperfectly, but no one who has ever lived in a Third World country with unpaved, impassable and dangerous roads and irregular and unreliable utilities would call the environment I live in dysfunctional.  Because this is America, we focus a lot on our faults and how things could be made better.  Because we live in a fearful time – for reasons that elude me insofar as all the data shows our society gets safer every year – we are receptive to analysts who focus on the flaws, which are real, and conclude that they threaten out way of life, which they don’t.


It is true that Congress enacts few new laws, but a census of legislation action is hardly a measure of government efficacy.  It may merely indicate that we’re talking a pause as we try to come up with a majoritarian position on a number of complex issues ranging from immigration to climate change.  There’s no glory in acting quickly but imprudently, and the main lesson of Obamacare is that making big changes with the slimmest of majorities throws sand in the gears until a we reach an equilibrium point where a substantial majority of voters agree with the outcome.


It is also true that Congress has an unimpressive record of passing budgets.  That, too, is a reflection of fundamental policy disagreements.  In an environment where the political parties disagree on whether agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, Environmental Protection Agency and Defense Department deserve more or less funding, it isn’t an unreasonable compromise to continue funding them at historic levels until the conflict is resolved.


Approval of the Keystone Pipeline has been delayed.  Gas prices at the pump have gone down.  Without going into the merits, it is very hard to see how life would be any better or worse for the average American had the project been approved or definitively killed two years ago.



The economy isn’t as good as we’d all like it to be.  But no nation – and no government – has seen results in responding to the Great Recession.  Theoretically one can argue that a different approach would have yielded a better result, but there’s ample evidence elsewhere that other strategies could yield worse outcomes.


One reason America is as good as it is (and, lest you miss the point, I’m arguing here that it is pretty good) is our relentless focus on making things better.  That’s been a successful strategy in the past and will probably continue to work now.  But rebranding real imperfections as dysfunctionality is glib, counterproductive and, ultimately, simply wrong.


Author Bio:


For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.


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