Most experts would agree that it is a good thing that politics thwarted the effort to establish a guaranteed annual income in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the effort to put in place what would today be called a single-payer healthcare system in the 1970s.
The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that all progress comes from legislation and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While these are seen as years of gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years. The US moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such a crisis has moved in the last generation. Through all the fractiousness, enough change has taken place that without further policy action, the debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to decline for the next five years. Beyond that the outlook depends largely on healthcare costs, but growth there has slowed to the rate of GDP growth for three years now — the first such slowdown in nearly half a century. At last, universal healthcare is in sight.
Within a decade, it is likely that the US will no longer be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place, but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Most public schools and those who teach in them are for the first time evaluated on objective metrics of student performance. The place of gays in American life has been profoundly altered with their marriage coming to be widely accepted.
No remotely comparable list can be put forth for Japan or Western Europe. Yes, change comes rapidly to several of the authoritarian societies of Asia. However, it may not endure and may not always be for the better. Anyone prone to pessimism would do well to ponder the alarm with which the US viewed the Soviet Union after Sputnik, or Japan in the early 1990s. It is the capacity for self-denying prophecy of doom that is one of the US’ greatest strengths.
None of this is to say that we do not face huge challenges. The challenges, though, are less of getting to agreement where the answer is clear than of finding solutions to problems, like rising inequality or global climate change, where the path is uncertain. That is not a problem of gridlock — it is a problem of vision.
Lawrence Summers is the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard University and a former US secretary of the Treasury. Any views and opinions expressed are his own.