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Are we trading the American dream for the Japanese nightmare?

President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner both wasted their opportunities to address the American people Monday night. They repeated familiar formulations, made no progress, offered no hope. Indeed, they offered the American people a display of empty petulance that will only confirm their darkest fears that Washington is now hopelessly broken. Obama's call for compromise and balance was far more lucid, rational and constructive, but, even as one who is very supportive of the approach offered by the President, watching the remarks I was forced to acknowledge that neither man led us one inch closer to the resolution of the unnecessary, man-made crisis that now holds the United States and the global economy in its thrall.

As Melissa Harris-Perry stated accurately in wrap-up comments on MSNBC, if this kind of display served anyone at all, it was the Republicans who argue that government is the problem. To them, it hardly matters that they are the ones who have guaranteed that theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which of course, would be just breathtakingly cynical were it not so dangerous.

It's dangerous of course, because government is not the problem. Indeed, for those who expect a functioning national defense, or stewardship of our national resources, or care for those who cannot help themselves, or education for our children, or the infrastructure we need to compete in the world, government is an essential part of the solution. In fact, in times like these, it is an even more important part of the solution than it is when the economy is more robust.

Similarly, one of the great lies at the heart of this debate is that the U.S. government is too big. The U.S. government's share of the economy is large and our budget is inexcusably out of balance, but those are both very different things than the bloated public-sector bully that the "too large" label implies. The vast majority of government's share of the economy is in payments to those who need assistance for health care or to pay for their retirements or for unemployment. It's not for rule-makers but for service providers, not for those with power over Americans but with those who work for them. Indeed, it is arguable that, given the power ceded over time to markets to set currency values, given the impact of globalization and trade deals on opening our borders, given the formulation of laws that appropriately constrain government power and eliminate public sector discretion over the behavior of citizens, that this government, regardless of the dimensions of its budget, may in many important ways be the least powerful in American history.

That said, at the moment, despite Republican efforts to evoke the threatening specter of a super-intrusive government that doesn't really exist, it's not the power of public institutions that at the moment commands our attention. It is the sad behavior of those who have been entrusted with the stewardship of those institutions. So consumed are they with their own ambitions that they are willing to practically invite ratings agencies to downgrade America, raise the cost of borrowing, choke off our growth, inflate the costs of our debt, create an entirely new and unnecessary burden on the American people. They dissemble as the Speaker did when he called his "cut, cap and balance" bill bi-partisan when it managed the support of only five Democrats. They deny logic and fairness when they suggest it is appropriate to balance the budget by taken from the needy while preserving the privileged tax status of the rich and of large corporations. And, in the president's case, they shirk responsibility when they suggest this is a Republican problem when for months the White House did precious little to move this forward or address the deficit when it had countless opportunities to do so. (As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said afterwards, the president's speech was pretty good but it probably "should have been given six or seven months ago.")

Of course, as disturbing as Monday night's display was to those hoping for reason and progress, there is an even more disturbing scenario. What if the dysfunctionality in Washington is not evidence that our system is broken but that it works too well, too accurately reflecting the nature of our society, the divisions among our people and the views they actually hold?

If that's the case, this most recent circus is not an aberration, but a harbinger. And if it is true, we are headed toward not one possible downgrade, but many, not toward the renewal of the American dream but to what might be called the onset of the Japanese nightmare, as we drift hopelessly toward the decision-less, leader-less, direction-less government much like that which has kept Japan trapped without relief in dire economic straits for almost two, long, hard decades now.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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