Is American democracy doomed?

Maybe.  Matt Yglesias (relying heavily on political science research) makes a good case for it.  The basic problem, a presidential system such as ours is simply not well-designed to handle two highly-ideological polarized parties.  And while we have had party polarization before, it’s never before had such a strong ideological component.  And here’s the basic theory at work:

Still, Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speakfor the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”

In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.

Is it going to come to a true failure of our government.  I think probably not, but I do actually find it quite plausible.  Give us some sort of crisis and it is not too far for a president to essentially become a dictator.  I will agree that “doom” is probably far more likely due to our presidential system than if we had a parliamentary system.

Video of the day

Single Transferable Vote is one of those really cool concepts that political scientists love, but almost nobody knows about (except of course the good people of Ireland).  I love this video that explains it with the animal kingdom.

Chart of the day

Trends in male facial hair via Vox.  Oh how wish this chart didn’t stop back in 1972.  I’d love to know just how unusual I am now in having a beard.  I also suspect that beards are way more popular than moustaches for the first time in a long while.  On a related note, wow, the introduction of the safety razor sure made a difference.  My oldest son is 15 and he really needs to start using one.  Alas, he is deathly afraid of anything sharper than a butter knife.  Civil War general look for him?

Mustaches, Beards, and more

Photo of the day

Very cool Wired gallery of photos from high above.

Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands. Benjamin Grant/DigitalGlobe


Most Americans don’t understand what a government subsidy is

Not exactly a shocking headline.  Surely less so than, most Americans don’t know that government is subsidizing their health care.  Actually, I suspect both are true, but I think the YouGov question this is based on (via Yglesias) is quite problematic:

“Do you receive [emphasis mine] a government subsidy to help you pay for your health insurance.”  My suspicion is that substantially more than 15% or so of American who receive employer health insurance no there’s a tax break involved, but don’t think a tax break as receiving a government subsidy.  I could be wrong, but I actually suspect you would have much higher responses to “is your health insurance in any way subsidized by the government.”  Of course, there’s really no excuse for all those 65+ on Medicare who just don’t get it.  So despite nit-picking the question wording, I do think Yglesias is right:

Some of what you see in this poll is a simple misunderstanding — older Americans either don’t know what Medicare is or mistakenly believe they have “paid for” their benefits with earlier taxes.

But Americans who get insurance from their jobs are also benefitting from a massive government program. A program whose existence is hidden from sight but is nonetheless quite real and substantial..

One of the few things that policy experts of all kinds can agree on is that it’s arbitrary and unfair to provide this subsidy to employees of large companies while other workers go unsubsidized and uncovered.

The Affordable Care Act seeks to address this unfairness by creating a parallel system of subsidies from people who don’t get job-based care while paring back the tax subsidy for the most expensive job-based plans.

Most conservative plans — from the one John McCain ran on in 2008 to the one Richard Burr, Orrin Hatch, and Fred Upton are pushing in the current congress — level the playing field by eliminating (in McCain’s case) or curtailing (in the current bill’s case) the subsidy for job-based plans. Avik Roy, a leading conservative health wonk, calls this subsidy the “original sin” of American health care policy.

But as far as the public is concerned, liberals and conservatives might as well be arguing about what to do with the Loch Ness Monster. A huge share of the American health policy debate is a debate about what to do about a subsidy that the public doesn’t realize exists.

Of course, one of the problems in making good policy in general is that it is far too easy to use Americans’ massive ignorance of how policy actually works (not that I’m blaming them) to mislead the public for political ends.  Death panels anyone?

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