Thursday, October 11, 2012

Election Briefing

It seems like the presidential campaign has been going on forever. No sooner did President Obama get elected, take office and come to Cairo, than the Republicans re-emerged in the mid-term elections, and the primaries began, where we were treated to, I will venture to say, the most motley collection of knuckleheads ever assembled in a contest for national leadership. And emerging from the burning wreckage like an eighties action hero, comes Mitt Romney, combining a personality whose blandness is eclipsed only by the level of calculation that seems to inform every movement, with the plutocratic cluelessness of Thurston Howell the Third.

But it’s October now, and the time really has come to pay attention. Luckily, the Economist steps up with a special report on the election. Before I delve into the issues that matter to me, there are two caveats against which I think the importance of the election should be balanced:
  1.  The economy is the biggest issue in the election, and, as the report reminds us “the influence of presidents over economic growth is slight compared with the natural recuperative powers of the economy, the international climate and the unpredictable pace of innovation”;
  2. The nature of the American system, along with the current reality in Congress will not allow either party to put most legislation to a vote.

 But no-one knows what the future holds, and even though presidents seem often to be shaped by the situations that confront them in the White House, elections demand our attention. So we begin with the candidates. As the report states, “This is an election campaign Mitt Romney should have had no trouble dominating.” With 8% unemployment, 2% growth, a war being lost, and an unpopular health care law as the signature legislation of the last 4 years, President Obama faces a lot of legitimate questions. People understand that he inherited a lot of these problems, but four years seems sufficient time to show at least some progress.

Ideologically, I lean to the left on most issues. I am with the democrats on guns, gays and god, but do not think that they go nearly far enough on any of them. I also believe strongly in carbon pricing and free trade, and that neither candidate is vigorous enough in his support of either issue. Governor Romney has vowed to brand China a currency manipulator: my view is that if they want to manipulate their currency and their policies so that things are cheaper for me, that’s a feature not a bug for America. Besides, if those manufacturing jobs the candidates talk about ever do return, they will be done by cheaper and less strike-minded robots, not union guys with high school diplomas and lunch buckets. Like family farming, those days are gone.

I also believe that government is an agent of redistribution and a provider of public goods, and that there are many of these, including education and health care. But I have worked for various state and federal government agencies over the last twenty years; I have stood in line at the DMV; and tried to figure out what I need to do to legally employ a housekeeper. It is clear that the government does not do a very good job of doing its job. Then again, anyone who, as I have, has tried to procure and understand private health insurance or sign a cellular phone contract, will understand, the private sector is equally bad at providing services: it just does so in a way that is slightly more efficient, while at the same time, more costly and confusing, in its attempts to wrest every dollar from your wallet.

This post is getting a little long, so I think I’ll try individual posts on each of the major issues in the report next week, and try to limit this to an outline of the parameters of the choice, as I see it.

Governor. Romney wants smaller government (except for defense), and lower taxes. He also has the luxury of not having to define what he would cut, promising to do everything for everybody. He opposes immigration, and does not favor action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He governed in Massachusetts from the center, won the nomination by tacking to the right, and has recently drifted back. What he truly believes is a mystery, but his business experience (an overvalued trait for governing, in my view) suggests that he will focus on the bottom line, which is doing what it takes to get re-elected, rather than simply maximizing profits.

President Obama has passed health care reform that no-one understands, and which will not really exist until 2014. He was elected under a mantle of hope and change, and the last four years have been short of both. Although he has come around on gay marriage, he has not closed Guantanamo and has ordered fleets of robot planes to kill innocent people in Pakistan. He promised to change Washington, and, if anything, has made it worse. He did order a successful hit on Osama Bin Laden (Imagine if that had gone wrong, a la Jimmy Carter in Iran. It takes guts to make the order, but luck plays an important part in the outcome) and he does play ball.

From an ideological standpoint, I really don’t think the two are all that different (See the always interesting Scott Adams for a pragmatic look at the candidates). The president is clearly a more inspiring figure, but Romney seems to have better odds of actually doing something inside the gridlock machine, although what that might be is a troubling mystery, and neither is likely to have an effect on the economic cycle.

I have been struck over the last two years at how similar the election is to sports, both in fans' inabilities to see quality in other teams, and in the actual effect of outcome on everyday life. If you look at it that way, it seems less significant, but it does consume a lot of energy and resources. And it still seems important.

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