Will the U.S. Pass a Point of No Return?

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This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after  time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.

The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.

In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.

I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.

Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.

To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.


1) “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)

The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.

For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:

RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.

There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.

Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.

Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!

And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.


2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:

Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.

The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.

“New” firms are responsible for most net job creation in the U.S. economy. (Graphic courtesy of the Kauffman Foundation)

Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.

At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:

America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….


America remains a…

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