It's a Bill Maher vs. Ann Coulter economic world

At times, the United States looks like an economic house-divided -- a Bill Maher vs. Ann Coulter war over financial policy and ideology.

There's no question the United States currently shows strong tendencies, consistent with previous economic and political cycles, of moving to the left after almost 30 years of conservatism that started with the Reagan presidency in 1981. The 2008 election of President Obama and the Democratic Party to majorities in both houses of Congress was the first and most obvious sign of this political and social trend, but it's also evident in our response to the financial crisis -- the hugely expanded role for the federal government, and the enormous amount of collective action that will continue to be needed to fix the mess we're in.

Maher-Coulter our Lincoln-Douglas?

However, that's not to say that the debate between these two camps has ended. Far from it: It's louder and more ubiquitous than ever as a result of the 24-hour news cycle. Moreover, Maher and Coulter recently took their cues from these momentous economic and political times to embark on a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate tour for the digital age (and to mint a few bucks for themselves).

Coulter rose to prominence in conservative circles via a bombastic, caustic persona that frequently appears intent on offending any individual or group she perceives as being liberal, moderate or non-conservative. She's been most effective when she critiques liberal social policies that haven't been as constructive as many liberals would like to think.

Maher rose to prominence via a liberal libertarian persona that wasn't afraid to take unpopular stands or views that go against any conventional wisdom. He's been most effective when he combines insights with humor to shed light on hypocrisy or idiocy, particularly by conservatives, but also by liberals.

New York Times (NYT) columnist Nicholas Kristof has argued that Americans' tendency to identify with one camp or another -- and, equally significant, the inability to discuss issues with people of different views -- leads to polarization and intolerance. The solution, Kristof says, is to seek out intellectual sparring partners with views we deplore. Kristof plans to join Maher and Coulter in finding a worthy opponent and venue, and all three should be applauded for their efforts, but I don't think debate will have any substantive impact on public policy. That's because while it's comforting to think of the United States as a place where the two sides compromise and hash out hybrid policies, the reality has been that, cyclically, one side, liberal or conservative, dominates over two decades or so. It registers a pretty good run, then excesses or mistakes occur, and then the country cycles back to other side.

As they say on Battlestar Galactica, "All this has happened before. All this will happen again."

Is it a Bill Maher versus Ann Coulter economic world? And would the United States be better off if Americans discussed issues with people they disagree with more, as Kristof recommends? Let us know what you think.

Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is writing a book on the U.S. presidency and the U.S. economy.

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