The Fall of the Roman Republic and the Fall of the American Republic: Sources

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Why we can’t build

“America’s system of checks and balances requires unusual and even extraordinary levels of consensus to pass legislation. First, you need the agreement of the House, the Senate, the White House, and, increasingly, the Supreme Court.
More granularly, congressional power is diffused across committees. The Senate has built in a supermajority requirement, known as the filibuster, which effectively raises the threshold for passage from 51 votes to 60 votes.

This raises the question: If the problem is embedded in the structure of the US government, how did the US ever do anything big? The short answer is that for most of our political history, two unusual conditions held. First, the parties were ideologically mixed, which made compromise easier. Second, one party was usually electorally dominant, which gave the party in the minority a reason to compromise: If you can’t win, you may as well deal.

Both those conditions have dissolved. America’s political parties are more ideologically — and demographically — polarized than ever before. We’re also in the most competitive period American politics has ever seen. In a system like that, both sides utilize the system’s bias toward inaction to foil their opponents. You can see this in the rise of the filibuster over time. The rule has been around almost as long as America, but it’s only been deployed as an omnipresent veto in recent decades”

“The result is a system biased toward inaction.”

” This is representative democracy at its worst: A democracy that only represents those who know to show up at meetings most people never hear about, and so ends up handing power to special interests and aggrieved NIMBYs.”

“some of Andreessen’s examples really can’t be blamed on the government, at least not in a traditional sense.

America doesn’t have more ICU beds because hospitals have budgets to balance. You can’t both run a profitable hospital and maintain enough spare capacity for a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Similarly, the companies that make ventilators are private companies. They didn’t make more ventilators because there wasn’t demand for more ventilators. Same goes for surgical masks, eye shields, hospital gowns. Now, you can argue the government should’ve been stockpiling more of this stuff all along — and definitely should have been ramping up production in January and February — but a capitalist logic of efficiency prevails both inside and outside the market.

Take, for instance, the wildly successful Obama administration program to loan money to renewable energy companies that became infamous because one of those companies, Solyndra, was a bust. That program led to a slew of successes (including Tesla) and turned a profit to taxpayers. As Michael Lewis argues at length in his book The Fifth Risk, the problem, if anything, was that it was too cautious — so afraid of a Solyndra-like story that it wasn’t funding sufficiently risky investments. But they proved right to be afraid.

If even the government is forced to turn a constant profit on its programs and to avoid anything that might look like a boondoggle, you can imagine the pressure actual private companies are under.”