US election… is there any point?

No it’s not Obama and Mitt. You know them. This is Ron Paul talking to Bill Maher, which for me symbolises better what this election is about. Well, it’s about various things. I’ll get back to these two in a minute.

In the new film ‘Killing them Softly’, right at the end, Brad Pitt’s gangster character Jackie Cogan says “this isn’t a country, it’s a business. So just give me my ****in’ money”. That’s a pretty good statement of the situation. I just came back from a month in the US (I’ve been going there since 1988), and as it was convention season, I just had to watch. While I was working you understand. Well, ok,  I watched almost no Republican convention, but all of the key Democrat convention speeches.

The Democrat convention speeches were predictable in their aspiration for social justice but worth watching if you want to get a handle on what the issues are. In a Democrat campaign/convention speech, the language is all about ‘society’, based on the middle class. Rich people have already done well, so they’ll take care of themselves. Poor people need ladders to get into the middle class. I think most Democrats really do believe in society as a concept. That’s noteworthy in the US, where there isn’t really a society as we know it in other countries. (There are however internal societies within the US – communities based on anything that works – religion, university towns, sports clubs, health management organisations.)

The high point of the convention was Clinton’s speech (Bill, not Hilary) – a blizzard of facts and figures woven into a sparkling narrative about serious stuff, and yet full of laughs. (Whoever wrote that needs to work for HBO). As the CNN anchors said, they could have just stopped there.

The problem with the Democrat vision isn’t that it’s wrong. Quite the contrary, I think it’s right, as articulated by the Obamas of this world. The problem is that it’s essentially an aspiration, because the reality of the US is much closer to the view of Pitt’s gangster, i.e. the Republican view.

If we take non-crazy Republicans like Romney as representative (I was going to say ‘and Paul Ryan’, but he’s borderline), the essence of their ideology is the American Dream – you can have anything, if you just work hard enough. It’s a great sell. A lot of people seem to buy into it, because it’s hope for everyone, whereas in the democrat vision, poor people know they aren’t going to get rich (but they can hope for better healthcare and education).

If everyone stopped a minute to analyse the Republican pitch, they would realise it is also not going to make you rich, unless they happen to be 0.1% of 0.1% who are incredibly lucky to get to the top. To do that, one has to step on the rest, and be aggressive and efficient about it. A pyramid can only have a small peak after all.

The other half of the Republican ideology is that government will always get in the way of you getting richer, so it should be downsized as much as possible, and the market will work everything out.

Ah yes, that old one. It’s true that the ‘market’, left to its own devices, will find its own operating point. Market idealisers often claim it will find the right solutions for everyone, and government should keep out of the way. Hayek – the precursor to more modern anti-Keynesians – believed that the prices people were willing to pay would by definition create a market that functioned for society.

That’s about as far from reality as one could imagine. One only has to look at the reasons behind the 2008 crash – mainly the banking fiasco – to get some idea of what happens in a real market whose regulations were stripped away in recent decades. Paul Krugman’s ‘End this Depression Now’ is a good analysis, and I also recommend this awesome cartoon – the primer on subprime mortgages. If you want to be shocked and truly indignant, watch the film of the Enron fiasco to see what happens in a barely controlled market. Or have a look at how Pharmaceutical companies exploit every possible loophole in a weakly regulated market and endanger public health in the process – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma will horrify you on this one.

So the market will find its own solution – that part is true. Sadly, it just won’t be optimised for citizens i.e. consumers, it will be optimised for business. The so-called market has to be regulated to make it perform in the interests of society. Don’t get me wrong, we need good markets and good quality companies. That’s where innovation comes from. But unregulated corporations in the modern era have often turned into money-extraction machines.

Anyway, back to the election. My earlier point was that Jackie Cogan’s epithet more or less describes the US reality. So what the Republicans are generally offering (in any modern election) is: making the great casino even more ‘business-friendly’, i.e. less obstacles to shooting your friends in the back and climbing to the top, a la The Hunger Games. It’s the same ‘hope’ that drives punters into casinos – unfortunately it’s an illusion for 99%.

What Democrats are offering is a picture of something approximating a ‘society’, which is nice, but so far away from the reality of the US that trying to achieve it is arguably also a kind of delusion. That’s probably why Barak Obama – one of the smartest presidents of all time, and an idealist to boot – looks so tired these days, including in the first presidential debate – my guess is he knows how far away his dream of a decent society is from today’s starting point, and also that he will continue to spend most of his time arguing with people for whom actual facts are a luxury too far in a presidential campaign.

In the end, neither side has much concretely interesting to offer that can actually come about. Almost no-one will get rich via the Romney route, but many will get poorer, as those lucky few find ever more inventive ways to suck the wealth from society into their private coffers. The Obama route looks better on paper for most, but has only a tiny chance of not being stomped on in congress by Republican blockers, who apparently just don’t believe in even pretending to enact any democratic process.

A great analysis of the state of Washington is offered by Mike Lofgren, in The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. I had the pleasure of listening to Lofgren in an extended reading / interview at a book club, on C-span (yes, the channel noone watches because … it just airs depressing real stuff). His analysis is penetrating and witty, and his only hope for the future is worth noting: get the money completely out of politics, then we have a chance. (I.e. we have no chance.)

So we are arguably left with US politics as a kind of post-modern reality entertainment medium, in which crazies ranging from Sarah Palin to Michelle Bachman to Rush Limbaugh (well ok, he’s been poisoning the airwaves forever) take to the stage with ever more absurd comedic utterances. The hot titbit while I was over there was Todd Akin’s claim that ‘legitimate rape’ would not lead to pregnancy because a woman’s body can tell the difference. Let’s not go there right now. Here are a couple of more amusing Romney-isms:

Corporations are people … Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”[story]

“[They] will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him…[story]

Paul Ryan doesn’t make gaffes so much as just completely fail to tell the truth on nearly everything including his marathon time, mis-stated to be in the ‘high 2h range’. It was over 4 hours. Some further analysis of Ryan’s struggle with facts here.

In general there is a fairly weak connection between campaign statements and reality, although the Republicans seem to have a far more cavalier attitude to the truth. So if you actually care about the election, here’s the one site you really need – (Obama came out of it better than Romney in the first debate, but ‘lost’ on presentation. So why are these debates useful again?).

Back to Ron Paul. He’s a libertarian (in the US sense, i.e. small government), a physician, a Republican, and when you see him talk, you instinctively want to chat with him – he shoots from the hip, and believes in what he says. For that, he gets invited onto Bill Maher’s Real Time show. Maher, if you don’t know him, is a communist / atheist comedian with his own show on HBO. He’s into lampooning liars and dissemblers, and I have to say I like his show better than Jon Stewart’s. He’s also pretty ecumenical with guests, and in the end I would class him as a humanist / satirist but not a satanist. I think that’s correct…. anyway, he likes Ron Paul because he speaks his mind. Fair enough…

In recent times Ron Paul’s main line is that we ‘should stop bombing people in foreign countries’ and ‘listen to our enemies’. In other words get the military out of the rest of the world, and start behaving like a normal country again. That always gets a cheer from the audience, including me. However, when you check his other policies, you discover that he [all quotes from wikipedia]:

  • opposes virtually all federal interference with the market process;
  • was one of three members of Congress that voted against the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. …The Sarbanes-Oxley law was drafted in response to accounting scandals, such as with Enron Corporation;
  • considers Social Security unconstitutional, and he has sought for many years for the program to be phased out. He says that the Social Security system, which he has called “a giant Ponzi scheme,”…
  • would eliminate all foreign aid;
  • would eliminate five cabinet-level agencies (Education, Interior, Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development);
  • was one of only 5 members of the entire Congress to vote against an anti-spam email bill in 2003;
  • sees school shootings, plane hijackings, and other such events as a result of prohibitions on self-defense;
  • in July 2011, when asked how he would work as president to provide contraceptive services for Americans who have no health insurance, he vowed to block all government payments for contraception

Sigh. I was just warming up to the guy. Now, to be fair, he thinks all the above functions should be devolved to states, local government or individuals, not just ignored. I don’t agree with that for the same reason that I don’t take people like Hayek seriously – society’s common needs will be abused at any level, as long as it remains legal to do so. But what the Ron Paul / Bill Maher interaction has, lacking elsewhere: clarity and conviction.

So there you have it. US politics. Whatever else you might think, at least it’s not boring. Although it would have been really fun if the Republicans had selected Ron Paul instead of Mitt Romney…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s