Roller Coaster Government

“Maintain an even strain.”

This famous line from the wonderful movie “The Right Stuff” is about how astronauts handle themselves–steadily, while keeping their eyes on the tasks at hand. ‎It’s a theme that runs through astronaut movies: in Apollo 13, when two of the three astronauts  are quarreling, Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks), says ” All right, we’re not doing this, Gentlemen…We’re not gonna go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes. ‘Cause we’re just gonna end up right back here with the same problems.” And in the movie The Martian, the Matt Damon character spends years alone on a desolate planet Mars “maintaining an even strain” to keep himself alive and to establish communications with Earth so he can be rescued.

Contrast this with Washington today. Our elected representatives and the executive branch pretty much engage in behavior as unlike “maintaining an even strain” as possible. Our laws change constantly, zigzagging back and forth between the preferences of the people on the more polarized ends of the Republican and Democratic parties. For example, our tax laws change constantly. In the area in which I practice, the rules have changed almost every year for decades. (Some of these changes result from provisions that expire automatically, sometimes for smoke and mirror budgetary reasons, and other times–pardon my cynicism–to catalyze campaign contributions to extend the expiring provisions further.) How is anyone supposed to proceed steadily, keeping their eyes on the tasks at hand, when the rules they need to navigate change constantly? [1]

Other examples of this instability in how we are now governed abound. In the area of urban poverty, Patrick Sharkey (whose most recent book, Uneasy Peace: the Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and The Next War on Violence, is well worth reading) has commented that money for disadvantaged areas has “fluctuated wildly”. He argues that poor areas need a consistent investment policy that touches multiple generations (just as poverty has touched most residents of poor areas for generations). A consistent investment policy is something that such neighborhoods have never had. [2]

In the area of industrial policy, we likewise live in yo-yo land. Andrew Liveris, ‎the former CEO and Chairman of the Dow Chemical Company, laments the uncertainty of U.S. government policy. For example, he states, “America’s R&D credit has always been temporary–designed to expire unless Congress renews it. Congress failed to renew it eight times since 1981, including in 2010. Each year, businesses have to face the distinct possibility that the R&D tax credit will be suspended, drastically cut, or discontinued. This makes it awfully hard to plan for the future.” [3]

One of the policy platforms of Liberal Republicanism should be to value stability in legislation and regulation. Let’s do our best to find practical solutions to problems that a broad swath of Americans can live with, then give them a chance to work. Too often the partisanship that has taken over in Washington has led to policies that are undercut before they even have a realistic chance of working. First one side enacts programs of its ideological bent with the support of a narrow slice of passionate Americans–then the political winds change and the other side undoes what their adversaries did, substituting policies that a different but similarly narrow slice of passionate Americans support. This cannot possibly end anywhere good. [4]

I recommend that as many of us as possible make a bowl of popcorn, grab our favorite liquid refreshment, then spend an evening with any one of the movies The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 or The Martian. And afterwards contemplate what we each can do to help our country again maintain an even strain.


‎1 For a discussion of many sensible things that could be done to address not only the volatility but the complexity of our tax policy, see the discussion with commentary of Bruce Bartlett’s book The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform–Why We Need It and What It Will Take in the bibliography with commentary section of the website [here].

2 See‎ “The Neighborhood Effect: 25 years after William Julius Wilson changed urban sociology, scholars still debate his ideas. Is anyone listening?”, by Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 5, 2012.

3 See the discussion of Andrew Liveris’ book Make It in America in the Bibliography With Commentary section of the website. [here]

4 This is not to suggest that there hasn’t always been plenty of ‎confrontation in American politics. There has. But the lack of consensus today is almost unparalleled. See the dancing dots video in the video section of the website for a one-minute illustration of how apart our politics have become. [here]

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