THE BLOG
02/17/2011 04:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Machiavelli, Third World America and Our National Crisis

When something goes horribly wrong, it's always useful to look to the Classics to understand what's actually happened and how to move forward. Is our national economy a case in point?

A lot of compelling stories are now circulating about what caused our crisis.

Choose the story that works for you, e.g. bad trade deals, financial speculation, special interest government, excessive partisanship, expensive wars, cavalier privatization, neglect of physical infrastructure, eclipsing opportunity, teachers/police-officers/firefighters live the life of Riley, etc.

And, the policy prescriptions follow, e.g. rewrite NAFTA, produce and export more while importing less, make financial instruments touch base with the real economy and also reduce speculation on the American Dream, increase transparency on how government does its business, force politicians to align their party interests with the national interest, end unnecessary wars of defense or aggression, use a basic cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a private contractor does the work of government cheaper than public employees, invest in infrastructure and clean energy to lay a foundation for growth and domestic energy security, invest in K-12 and community colleges to create pathways of opportunity, re-enact Herbert Spencer's Social Statistics, etc.

Unfortunately, while all this is compelling and clearly germane to our crisis and route out of it, we are not having a grounded holistic public debate about the actual root of our crisis.

For those seers who think that they understand what all others cannot see, and possess the prudent path forward, that one group has a monopolistic understanding of our crisis and the appropriate route out of it. Everyone else is just self-interested and wrong-headed. A solution will emerge shortly from the laboratory of either the Tea Party, Republicans or Democrats, that a short bullet pointed document or a viral youtube rant will solve things.

But there may be comfort in Machiavelli's The Prince:

When trouble is sensed well in advance it can easily be remedied; if you wait for it to show itself any medicine will be too late because the disease will have become incurable. As the doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. So it is in politics. Political disorders can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance (and only a prudent ruler has such foresight); when, for lack of a diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.

For the rest of us, it seems obvious that we've got a large crisis caused by many problems decades in the making and not reducible to the policies of a single sector or political party. The underlying illness though -- at its core -- couldn't be clearer. Is it all over then?

In America, we have a belief that a broad-based recognition of an illness represents an opportunity to solve it through democratic participation and deliberation. In many ways Arianna Huffington's book, Third World America, diagnoses important aspects of our disease, taking a broad view.

Others do as well. I have written a recent book, Obama's Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal, that explains how President Obama is offering a prescription to the type of disease Huffington lays out -- and trying to disabuse us of the myth that this is a Greenspan/Rubinite crisis along the way.

The President's Budget Plan for 2012 should be viewed as a prescription for the illness that is readily apparent to us all. It should open up a discussion. We should be assessing the plan based on its ability to address that illness. We must, however, invest in democratic participation and deliberation to do so. We should be spending our time hashing out the Big Picture by revisiting our domestic crisis canon, not engaging in single issue diagnoses and the litmus test politics that comes from them. We've got lots of broken arms to fix, but we need to make sure that we don't loose site of the underlying disease. Otherwise, we may end up only with stitched up body parts.