I just finished watching season 1 of the American version of House of Cards, having watched the BBC’s British version a few years back. The lead actors in each version, Kevin Spacey and Ian Richardson respectively, are excellent, as is the rest of the cast. Both productions are quite dark, with strong overtones of Macbeth. I highly recommend them.
The American House of Cards deals with political and personal intrigues at the highest levels in Washington. The dark mood of each episode resonates with us partly, I believe, because of the low esteem in which we currently hold most of our national political leaders. At the end of the year, the President had an average job approval of 43%, while 53% disapproved. For Congress, the figures were a startling 13% approval and 81% disapproval. No wonder we’re so ready to believe that almost anything, short of Shakespearean witches, is possible in the dysfunctional culture of Washington.
But, is the current Washington culture uniquely dysfunctional or just a more extreme version of the way things have generally worked since the Constitution went into effect in 1789? Is it perhaps so difficult to get things done because that’s how our system of checks and balances was actually designed to work? Despite the high disapproval numbers, how bad are things actually, especially when compared to just about any other country in the world? And, is our system of government still adequate for dealing with our fast changing, highly complex world?
I thought of these questions when reading Don’t Mistake this for Gridlock, a recent NY Times opinion article by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, in which he articulates an intriguing, contrarian point of view. While economic policy in the US is indeed ruled by gridlock, “the American political system allows for more change than its current reputation suggests,” he writes.