U.S. is Great, But Its Government System Stinks

10/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The system of financial contribution corruption and excessive checks-and-balances has brought the U.S. economy to its knees, along with the rest of the world.

It may be business as usual for Americans, but believe me there is nothing usual about the world any longer and the U.S. political structure is a serious competitive disadvantage going forward for the country.

The U.S. political system has deteriorated into a constant political reality show, corrupted by stunts, personality cults, media manipulation and by special interests.
This is searingly obvious this fall because the U.S. election cycle and economic crisis have collided, bringing its economy, and others, to the brink and Washington is unable to fix anything in a timely, effective manner.

Wall Street has been allowed to run amok because rich guys can buy politicians and Main Street is imperiled.

A tale of two countries

I am binational and live/vote in both the U.S. and Canada. And for my money, parliamentary systems like Canada's are superior because they have streamlined decision-making (majorities do what they want), they are cost-efficient and have faster reaction times if leaders pay attention.

(There are many aspects of the parliamentary system in Canada I don't like such as the monarchy and its Senate which is just a bunch of patronage appointments. But other countries, such as Australia have turned their Senate into regional bloc representatives, as is the case with the U.S. to counterbalance the rep-by-pop tyranny.)

That doesn't mean that every country with a parliamentary system (which blends legislative and executive branches) is superior to the American one. But they are, structurally and sometimes in practice, superior and operate like a modern corporate structure. The U.S. political system is a fossilized, cumbersome, corrupt structure which was devised in the 18th Century.

Jefferson and Adams are spinning in their graves at what has happened to the U.S. system and, for comparison purposes, it's instructive to look at the Canadian parliamentary system, currently undergoing a federal election.

Two systems

Consider the differences this fall. Canadians vote Oct. 14 and Americans Nov. 4.
Canada's federal election will have lasted about 35 days and cost about $240 million, all in. Canuck election laws have virtually eliminated special interest donations and parties are given tax dollars to run their campaigns with strict budgets on spending. This is more appropriate than letting rich people control campaigns with donations. After all, political representatives are supposed to serve the taxpayers not campaign donors.

Canada's Elections Act limits party spending, spurring party leaders to keep campaigns as brief as possible. Companies and unions or non-profits/think tanks can contribute a maximum of $1,000 but this is mostly supplemental.

Estimates are the total American federal race -- Presidential plus Congressional -- will reach more than $3 billion by November. What this means, of course, is that mega-donors wade into this in a big way and buy influence.

There is public campaign financing law in place in the U.S. but everybody ignores it because they can. It was designed to fail. Under its rules, a candidate would be given $84.1 million from the Treasury to finance a campaign, but is not allowed to accept private donations, or spend more than that amount.

Most opt out and there are ways around limits by raising funds with committees or state parties. (There's also the anonymity of Presidential Library donations but that's a whole other disgusting loophole.)

The Presidential race has lasted more than 18 months while the Congressional races, frankly, never end. The House of Representative seats are up for grabs every two years as is one-third of the Senate. This guarantees that politics, not policy, are pre-eminent; that compromise, not principle, is first and foremost and that influence peddling never, ever ends.

Status quo not OK

Some may argue that this political system has been around for a couple of centuries and the United States has become a rich and free nation.

But the world has changed the U.S. political system has not. Today, markets, and terrorists, and voters, never wait and operate in real-time. Washington is like a corporation run by amateurs that needs 500 signatures to execute anything.

The economic crisis will pass but America's biggest crisis is the fact that Washington is an 18th Century American political system operating in the 21st.

In a Parliamentary system, a crisis is dealt with by the Prime Minister, his cabinet and experts and then worked through within the party caucus. If there's a majority government then they can force their members to vote in what they want. If it's a minority government, another party with enough votes must be adhered to.

Meanwhile America's federal politicians dither and play around while Rome burns. And in the corridors of power in Washington and on the stump there is only politics, showbiz, grandstanding, railroading, press conferencing, stern speechifying, election stunts and brinkmanship.

I also blog at Financial Post