Monday, October 14, 2013

The Grass Is Always Greener

There is always a segment of America that looks longingly at Europe and wonders why the U.S. cannot get its act together like the Europeans do. I know about this firsthand because I was—and sometimes still am—such an American.

When I came home in 1974 from my year of study in France, I was enthused about the parliamentary system and the wide array of European political parties that represented every shade of political thought and ideology. In contrast, the U.S seemed to be held back by a joint monopoly of two political parties, which were clearly too large and diverse to stand for any clear ideology (back then at least).

Years of living in Europe, however, have since tempered my admiration for its political systems. But I still wonder occasionally how the U.S. might be different under a parliamentary system. So my ears perked up on Saturday when that very question was posed on National Public Radio. “Would The U.S. Be Better Off With A Parliament?” was the title of a report by Ari Shapiro on Weekend Edition. Strangely, though, the piece never actually addressed its titular question.

The piece began with this odd assertion: “[T]he extreme paralysis that has recently become the norm in D.C. almost never happens in Western European democracies.” Huh? Has NPR never heard of Italy? I guess they figured the word “almost” covered that.

What the report was really about was a Harvard task force study of how agreements are negotiated in American politics. One of the working assumptions was apparently that there is less paralysis in European democracies. The conclusions are basically “U.S. Constitution 101.” America has a system of separation of powers, and that makes it harder to pass laws. The task force seems to have regarded this as an inadvertent flaw rather than a deliberate design.

Noting that, in a parliamentary system, the head of government is elected by the parliament and not directly by the people. Shapiro explained helpfully, “It would be as if the American president’s party always controlled Congress.”

Uh, no, Ari, it would be as if the House of Representatives elected the president. In a parliamentary system, the parliament is elected first, district by district, and then that body elects the prime minister. If the U.S. had suddenly switched to a parliamentary system before the 2012 elections, the president today would be John Boehner.

It’s an interesting thought process that would lead someone—it’s not clear whether it was Shapiro or the task force—to conclude that, under a parliamentary system, Democrats would have won a majority of districts in the country as a whole when they didn’t do so under the current system.

But then American politics can be confusing. Why did the same nationwide group of voters elect a Democratic president at the same time as electing a substantial majority of Republican members of Congress? Democratic partisans like to say that gerrymandering skews the district-by-district results, but that alone cannot explain the size of the Republican congressional majority.

The fact is that, at least currently, Democrats do much better in national elections than they do in the aggregate of local elections. So it is hard to argue that they would somehow control the whole government under a parliamentary system.

But, as I mentioned, Shapiro’s report barely discusses the idea of how a parliamentary system would change things in America. It quickly segues to the notion that America would be better off with European-style campaign finance restrictions. The suggestion is that deadlock in the U.S. is a byproduct of too much political spending. And I suppose it’s true that the kind of government controls on political spending in countries like France and the UK do help to avoid deadlock. That’s because, under such a system, the party in power gains a huge advantage.

But the party in power has a huge advantage anyway. That’s because a party with a majority in parliament can pass any law on its own, only needing rubber stamps from the upper house and/or the president or monarch.

In Ireland, even the ineffectual role of the Seanad (Senate) was a bit bothersome for the Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Enda Kenny, as he recently held a referendum to abolish it. Unexpectedly, Irish voters decided to keep their upper house—even though its main role is to give would-be, has-been and never-were politicians a forum for spouting off about all kinds of nonsense. A highlight this past summer was when independent Senator David Norris derided in an over-the-top tirade a Fine Gael senator, who supported abolition of the Seanad, as “talking through her fanny.”

The fact is, when American academics and journalists talk admiringly of how much better things are done in Europe, their gaze across the Atlantic is pretty darn selective. What you do not hear touted on NPR as being better than in America, for example, are things like this. The strongest economy in Europe is in Germany. Right now it is Germany all by itself keeping the rest of Europe afloat economically.

Germany is where right-of-center Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently re-elected handily. One of the main proposals coming from her losing opponent was the institution of a federal minimum wage. Germany has never had one.

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