Mar 1st 2010

For America to Succeed in the 21st Century, Senate Rules Must Change

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on
As momentum grows to change the rules of the United States Senate, it's important to look beyond partisan battles and evaluate the effect of the way we make major decisions on the prospects for American success in the 21st Century.

In his book Collapse, Pulitzer prize-winning physiologist and ethno-geographer Jared Diamond studies the collapse of six ancient societies. He also looks at successful decision-making that staved off potential collapse in four other societies -- as well as modern collapse scenarios in Rwanda and Haiti.

Some of the societies he studies successfully adapted to change. Others did not. Diamond writes: How can we understand such differing outcomes? A society's response depends on its political, economic, and social institutions and on its cultural values. Those institutions and values affect whether a society solves (or even tries to solve) its problems.

Why don't societies recognize and correct their problems before it's too late?
Diamond lays out four reasons why societies fail to make the right decisions:

1) Failure to anticipate the problem before it arrives.

Often a society or its decision makers have no prior experience that a particular course of action will lead to a particular outcome.

The Norse Greenlanders invested heavily in walrus hunting because there was a major market for ivory from tusks in Europe in the Middle Ages. They had no way of knowing that the Crusades would re-open Europe's access to Asia and Africa and elephant ivory. They also had no way of anticipating that climate change would increase sea ice and impede traffic from Greenland to Europe. Those factors ultimately lead to the society's collapse.

Other societies fail to anticipate because they rely on false analogies with familiar situations. The French military prepared for World War II by building the famous Maginot Line. It was intended to defend France from the kind of infantry attack that characterized World War I. World War I had involved heavily-defended defensive lines and trench warfare. The WW II German attack, when it actually came, was spearheaded by tanks and armored divisions that passed the Maginot Line through forest formerly thought unsuitable for tanks. Failure to anticipate often results from planning for the last war.

2) Failure to perceive a problem that has actually arrived.

Of course, some problems are very difficult to discern with the naked eye. Without the tools of modern science, for instance, there was no way for the first colonists of Mangareva in the Pacific to know that their activities were causing the soil nutrient exhaustion that was a critical factor in the society's demise.

The most common reason for the failure to recognize a problem is that it takes the form of a slow trend, concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The most salient modern example is global warming.

Medieval Greenlanders had similar problems in discerning that the climate was getting colder. The Maya and Anasazi had trouble discerning that their climates were becoming drier.

Diamond refers to the problem as "creeping normalcy" - slow trends hidden in noisy fluctuations. If educational performance, the economy, traffic congestion or anything else changes gradually, our baseline for evaluating them gradually changes, too. You get "landscape amnesia" - until you see an old picture of the seacoast where a huge glacier once ran into the sea, and suddenly realize that it has shrunken and receded for miles.

To use an old analogy, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. You put a frog in a pan of cool water, and gradually increase the temperature, and you get a boiled frog.
Part of the answer to the mystery of why the residents of Easter Island completely deforested their island is that every year there were fewer and fewer trees, and fewer people alive who remembered how things used to be. At the point when someone cut down the last fruit-bearing adult palm, the species had ceased to have economic significance.

3) Failure to attempt to solve a problem even when it has been identified.

This turns out to be the most common, and surprising, reason why societies collapse.
The major cause is "rational behavior" by actors - and decision-making elites - that benefits some individual or private self-interest but is harmful to the prospects of the entire society.

This is often complicated because the benefits to a small group that profits from the action is great in the short run, and the resulting damage to everyone else is not very palpable or immediate, except over time.

When the hard-rock mining companies in Montana polluted the environment, they profited enormously. Those who got scarce jobs benefited as well. The fact that they were poisoning the rest of us was not as immediately obvious. So the stakes for the small group with a special interest were much higher than they appeared for each individual who was negatively impacted.
The "tragedy of the commons" also plays a role here. It is in the private interest of every fisherman to maximize his catch in the fishery. But it is in the interest of all - including the long-term interest of every fisherman - that the renewable resource of the fishery should be preserved for everyone by limits on catches. The same goes for all potentially renewable resources from trees to soil nutrients to wildlife.

Common action is necessary to address these kinds of problems.

Often societies fail to act to solve obvious problems when elites think they can insulate themselves from the consequences of communal disaster.

For generations, the governing elite in Haiti felt insulated from the effects of deforestation and poverty. As in other societies where rich people believe they can buy their way out of common problems by living in gated communities, buying bottled water and sending their children to private schools, they were simply not as inclined to make decisions in the interests of the entire society.

In America today, the massive power of the financial sector, the insurance industry, the energy companies - and the disproportionate wealth of a tiny percentage of the population -- represent our biggest hurdle to solving the long-term problems that threaten our long-term success.

Another major reason why societies fail to solve perceived problems is a heavy focus on short-term interest instead of long-term interest
. The worldwide liquidity of capital markets has helped contribute to the growing pressure from those markets on next-quarter's profits.
The government, reflecting the long-term interests of society, is the only real counterweight to this tendency in the private sector. But this requires a government that is not dominated by those very same vested interests whose interests it must offset.
Diamond presents two final categories of reasons why societies fail to act even when they perceive a problem:
· Crowd psychology
· Denial

As we know, people are pack animals. They get swept up into the goals and activities of the pack. Peer influence has a huge impact in determining what each of us defines as "common sense."

Support for the Crusades became "common sense" in Medieval Europe - even though it caused a massive drain of society's scarce resources. Germans were one of the most highly educated populations in Europe before World War II, but they were swept up by Nazi propaganda.
A key factor that allows these kinds of excesses is the suppression of critical thinking, public debate and the legitimacy of dissent. These all tend to occur in climates of fear. Fear has always been the principal rationale for the suppression of individual rights that are the precursors to "group think." That was as true in George Bush's America as it was in the old Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany.

Denial is yet another factor that paralyzes action. The prospect of an imminent disaster is so terrifying that we simply deny it. Action to solve problems requires hope that the problem can be solved. If the situation appears hopeless, the safest psychological course is to deny it exists or to believe that the problem isn't important. If Easter Islanders didn't believe they could do anything to bring back trees, it was better to deny that the deforestation was a problem in the first place.

There is of course one final reason that societies collapse.

4) Even after recognizing and attempting to solve the problem, they fail to do so.

They fail either because the solution is beyond their means, or their efforts backfire, or it's simply too late.

Even if the Easter Islanders had done everything they could on their isolated island to reforest, at some point there was a qualitative tipping point, and nothing more could be done. Maybe if they had access to other societies with seedlings, or modern science, the result would have been different. But given the geographic, environmental and historic context of the Easter Island society, there came a point where nothing else could be done.

Waiting too long has real consequences.
What does all of this have to do with the rules of the United States Senate?
The rules of the Senate - and their systematic abuse by the Republican minority - now effectively require a 60 vote supermajority to pass any kind of legislation. That requirement paralyzes action - particularly when the Republicans believe they can achieve partisan advantage by completely stopping the Obama agenda.
And if they succeed they will be right. The voters never punish or reward political leaders because of procedural maneuvers. Voters care about the effect of the policy on their lives, and they expect those in power to actually deliver real solutions. The excuse that the other side uses obstructionist tactics doesn't really matter to the voters.
And it's not just the filibuster. The rules requiring unanimous consent to proceed on most items of business, empower individual Senators to impede or delay action.
The Senate was constructed by the Founders to be a conservative body. By its nature it allows small states like Vermont to have the same representation as a state such as California that includes almost ten percent of the country's total population.

But the rules that now prevent or slow action were not envisioned in the Constitution - and for good reason

Some argue that the Senate rules promote bi-partisan action. In fact, the opposite is true
. The current rules incentivize the Republicans to obstruct action. If action required a majority vote, they would be much more likely to negotiate bi-partisan action in good faith because they would not have a shot at using its minority to completely stop action of any sort.
What's worse, those rules are now being used by the most powerful elites in the country to prevent action on a wide array of matters that critically impact the ability of America to succeed in a changing world.

Why do we spend twice as much on health care per person than any other country and are 37th in health care outcomes? Blame the rules of the U.S. Senate. Even if we succeed - as I think we will - at passing health insurance reform by using Senate budget reconciliation rules - the filibuster rules will be responsible for defeating a public option that could have materially reduced the cost of health care in America. Why? To protect the private health insurance industry.
Why do we have such difficulty dealing with the critical problem of climate change and the development of new sources of energy? Blame the Senate rules that protect the power of the oil companies.

Why is it so hard to rein in the exploding financial sector whose recklessness and greed caused the current recession, cost seven million American jobs and almost caused the collapse of the world economy? The Senate rules help protect the power of Wall Street.
Economists say the Obama stimulus bill created or saved from 1.5 to 2.5 million jobs. But as Paul Krugman says, it was too little of a good thing. Why? Because the 60 vote requirement in the Senate kept the new Obama Administration from doing everything that was necessary to restart our economy.

The Senate rules empower a tiny, economic elite whose interests run contrary to the public interest. They prevent the American government from making decisions quickly and forcefully -- to address the needs of the long run instead of the short-term interest of investment banks and insurance companies. Presidents since Harry Truman have tried to reform health care. The Senate rules have prevented action.

Change - accelerating change - is the central fact of the modern world. If America is to succeed and survive in the 21st Century it must have a government that can make timely decisions, look at the long haul, and act in the public interest - rather than represent the interests of tiny elites whose personal interests conflict with those of the society at large.
That requires that we change the Senate rules to make the Senate into a responsive, decisive body that represents the public interest and can no longer be used by the most powerful special interests to maintain their wealth and power at the expense of America's future.

Robert Creamer's recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections. Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit."
Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."