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Don't cut it so close
On European countries, voters as graders, and the usefulness of expecting little but also expecting good performance
When pressed last month to describe the systemic strengths of the United States, Charlie Munger pivoted to a broader question and advised, "I think the road ahead to human happiness is to expect less." He wasn't speaking explicitly of the behavior of Congress, but it's a appropriate advice nonetheless. Particularly in light of the too-close call to suspend the Federal debt ceiling and avoid default, "Expect less" is even better advice than it first appears.
■ In terms of performance, we should expect no less than we do now. Failing to reach a sensible agreement until the absolute last moment is a mark of dysfunction and incapacity, neither of which should pass muster with American voters. If your member of Congress was a holdout, they are part of the problem and you should hold them accountable.
■ But in terms of ambition, we really should expect less. It should be self-evident that we (as a voting public) are expecting more of Congress than they are willing, institutionally, to deliver. Regular order is nowhere to be seen, and there is room enough for a bipartisan caucus full of people who would plainly rather be putting on performances for media consumption than getting legislation passed.
■ The vast majority of states are population or economic peers with recognizable countries. One of the great gifts of the Constitutional order is that those states don't have to invest substantial time or resources conducting foreign affairs or coordinating national defense; Washington does all that. All else being equal, the result should be greater innovation and policy quality coming out of individual states than from their international peers. Yet does it feel that way?
■ Lowering our expectations for what Congress and the Federal government should try to do would permit us to raise our expectations for what they actually execute upon. Keep the task list short, but demand reliable performance. Meanwhile, recalibrating our rubric for the elected officials in Washington ought to leave us with more scrutiny to apply on the state level, where problems are already closer to home than they look from the District of Columbia. The pinch with the debt ceiling should give us the impetus to pull answers from closer rather than farther awaay.