Day 4: Washington, DC US vs Canadian Federalism

Briefings today with the Justice Department on privacy laws, and with scholars from the Brookings Institution and the American University on federalism and fiscal matters. The latter lead me to believe that regardless of who wins the US presidential elections, the Americans are going to continue facing serious deficit problems.

For a Canadian, it is odd to see a system where the failure to pass a budget carries no political consequences. The US President has failed to pass a budget three times and yet the business of government soldiers on. In Canada, of course, failure to pass a budget means a loss of confidence in the executive and an election, so the relatively cavalier approach to budget matters in the US is a stark reminder of how different are the presidential and parliamentary systems. Worse, it appears Americans kind of like the way things are. They vote Democrat in one branch to keep their programs and they vote Republican in the other to cut their taxes. In other words, everyone wants the government to spend more and no one wants to pay for it. Hence the optimistic estimates of future federal budget deficits are +$750B for the forseeable future.

As one scholar observed, the issue the public and the politicians should be talking about is how to deal with the structural problems of the US economy. The consumption binge is over. Americans need to become more producers than consumers. Keynesian options to stimulate spending financed by debt is the exact wrong prescription to a problem caused by too much spending financed by debt. Is the public ready for this change? He thinks not.

Our briefing on how the US federal system works was also fascinating. (As a bonus, I finally understand how the presidential electoral college works.) The extent to which the founders attempted to improve on the British Parliamentary system through the separation of powers, and creation of multiple checks and balances is certainly logical, if not completely effective – especially at the federal level. And the irony, for a country that doesn’t particularly like or trust government, is they sure have an awful lot of it. Aside from 1 federal government and 50 state governments, there are 87,858 local governments. In total, there are some 521,000 elected or appointed government officials. That may seem like a lot but it has its own built in discipline. If you don’t like how your municipal government is running things, you can move 10 minutes away to the next town or county. If you don’t like how your federal government is running things, your options are far more limited.

I spent the evening walking around The Mall and taking in the beauty of the capital at night, the Washington Monument (closed because of earthquake damage), the Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson memorials, the World War II and Korean War memorials, and the Martin Luther King memorials were all an absolute delight to see at night. These pictures don’t do it justice. You’ll just have to come to Washington to see for yourself.


Expenses: Today, mostly for travel between meetings and food.

$10.98     Lunch at Corner Bakery Cafe

$25.00     Dinner at Zorba’s Cafe

$19.00     Taxis

$54.98     Total