Saturday, November 03, 2012

Getting Down to Cases, Pt. 2

At last! We can now--finally--address the question of who should be the President of the US for 2013-2017. And, more importantly, who it will be.  Here, we examine the broad landscape under which the election will be held; then we will look at the key state elections which will decide the contest .

The US Economy
It has been a truism of this electoral campaign that the US economy is not what it should be, that Americans are justified in thinking that things should be better than what they are, which is a 1-2% annual GDP per capita growth, slow but steady increase in jobs, and very little inflation (apart from, sporadically, increase in certain energy products).  The Republicans use this as the premise for arguing for a change in the Presidency; the Democrats accept it as a tenet it would be impolitic to deny.

I, on the other hand, disagree with this; I would call it an axiomatic falsehood.  The fact that things may have (and I emphasize, may) been better in the past is no reason to assert that things will be/should be better in the future--it is not an entitlement that we, the richest nation in the world, should grow more than other nations.  I question even whether this would be desirable, even if it were possible; it would suggest that the rest of the world's economies would not be able to keep up, which would bode ill for us all in the long term (lack of markets, lack of political or economic stability).  I would deny that our rich are overtaxed, that small businesses are handcuffed by anything (except banks' unwillingness to lend to them), that there is too much uncertainty about tax policy.  I would accept that we have an imbalance of work, in which many are underemployed while many others are overemployed, and that in general there is not enough work needed by our public and private employers to support the domestic cash-flow demands of our families.

I am extremely skeptical of the likelihood of the program of either major party's candidate making a significant difference in the employment level of the economy, so let's not get too hung up on the (minor) differences their policies would produce in that area. Instead, let's think about the substance of their economic policies, the chances they can get them done, and what their real effects would be.

Mitt Romney's domestic policies are more like suggestions, couched as they are in ambiguities and contradictions, but they come down to reducing the tax rates for the middle class and all above, reducing corporate taxes, reducing taxes that only affect the wealthy like dividends and capital gains, and reducing deductibility limits for higher income brackets--I think. He wants a package that is revenue neutral but can't get there with the deductions that he has--it seems--put off the table. He claims to have reductions in spending, but won't specify those, either:  apparently they exclude defense, foreign aid (seemingly, and surprisingly, based on his last debate tack), and the safety net. Clearly, the cuts would have to include some of the agencies which limit the depredations of big business.  He does seem inclined to conduct some kind of big negotiation and make a big deal, which might be OK if we had some idea what it was that he would, or would not, accept in such a deal. I would guarantee that his deal would be one acceptable to Grover Norquist and the tax reduction pledge to which most of his party is bound.  Which means it's one that the Democrats of the Senate are unlikely to accept.

Barack Obama's plan is one that could achieve bipartisan support in a different political environment.  Essentially it will promise benefits for most of the country in the form of needed investments in infrastructure, and I'm sure it will be well-distributed across the districts and states of the Senators and Represenatives who will support it. He would pay for it by agreeing to progressive cuts targeted to certain areas over time (replacing the across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, including the military, that the sequestration plan currently in law would require) and some revenue increases that would also be phased in over time.  The criticism of the package, which could prevent it even coming to a vote in the Republican House of Orange we expect to continue, will be that it does not do enough to reduce the deficit soon enough, and that it does not do anything to "fix" Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  A true fix of these programs--some kind of cuts in amount, timing, or extent of benefits, or increase in payroll taxes to pay for continuing current levels of benefit--is something that I think is beyond the capability of any likely form of Federal government in the next Congress.  Maybe it could come in the 2015-2017 one, when the danger will be closer, the President weaker, and the Congressional makeup could be changed one way or the other from what I expect to be the continuation of the current power stalemate.  In that regard, failure to give serious consideration to Obama's plan could cause the dam to break in the Democrats' direction, so I see there being a great deal of pressure on the Republican House leadership to allow the vote, and then to defeat it. I expect that the most Congress will end up passing in the next session is more stopgap spending with more improvised budget cuts.

The Rest of the World 
Back to Romney for a moment.  One clear aspect of his program is to increase exports, which sounds good and reasonable, but, in the event, might be a big failure.  The reason is that the global economy, excluding the US now, seems perched on the edge of a significant growth recession.  Europe's austerity programs are severely limiting possible growth there, while Asia's growth is slowing, as well.  Labeling China a "serial currency manipulator on Day One", as Romney has pledged to do, will do nothing real but will trigger protectionist provisions from the US (so it would be counter to his program); it would antagonize the Chinese, who are sensitive to such symbolic slights, and it certainly won't result in increased exports to China. Though Obama has not made such a point of it, he also promises increased exports (if I remember correctly, double the 2009 level by 2016); though the global economy is not likely to be better or worse if he is elected, he would do a better job maintaining friendly relations with our trade partners, of that there should be little doubt.

In terms of foreign policy and the role of commander-in-chief of the military, Obama has been successful for the most part.  He has done what the American people wanted (especially with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by ignoring the Pakistani government to attack al Qaeda), worked well with our neighbors, and achieved much.  There are some major pieces of unfinished business--clearing out Guantanamo, making progress in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, and bringing Iran's nuclear program to some satisfactory resolution--but there is no reason to oppose him based on the results, and no reason to prefer Romney in this area.  After making various hawkish criticisms of Obama in the primary campaign, Romney (or his advisers) realized as much before the final debate, and he ended up agreeing with Obama more often than not.  In particular, Romney avoided the opportunity to put his foot in it a third time with regard to the tragic results in Benghazi on September 11--in this, he disappointed his loyal neo-con backers, who want him to poison relations with the governments emerging from the Arab Spring. I will credit Romney with eschewing such an approach and avoiding a disaster, at least on that occasion.

Government Beyond the White House
While I think that the first term of the Obama Administration deserves an overall grade somewhere in the "Very Good" range, there are big problems with all other parts of our government.  Congress, of course, is totally ineffective; its greatest problems are due to the perennial campaign and unlimited campaign spending, but the difficulty of doing anything to reduce the potency of the filibuster also rates mention. Obama's political appointees are languishing in most or all Cabinet departments, with more problems on the way as first-termers depart, unless there is an agreement with the Senate to start giving nominations prompt consideration.  The Supreme Court is a disaster area, and one can only imagine things getting worse unless Obama has a chance to nominate a replacement to one of the Far-Right Four or the unsound swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The governments in the worst shape are the state and local ones.  It is fine to suggest more devolution of power from the central government to the periphery (as long as basic rights are protected when this is done); it is a completely different matter whether these local entities have the capacity, the talent, or the monetary resources to handle additional responsibilities.  I see this as one of the key areas the next President will need to address, with something like President Nixon's (yes, his!) Revenue Sharing a likely solution.

Finally, our political environment is poisonously bad.  I'm not saying this because of the partisan battles; that is the way of our republic, and the voters should be able to judge.  The problem is the extremely high cost of bad quality in our political system, in which any damned fools with lots of money can say any sort of lie, and there is no possibility of penalizing the liars. The other problems are lack of progress in statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. or  toward eliminating or emasculating the Electoral College, and lack of any consistent approach to issues of voter registration, decennial redistricting, and access to polls.

With regard to the very last point, let me leave you with a question:  what would have happened if Hurricane Sandy had hit this weekend, not last weekend? I am not sure I can describe what the results would have been, but it is safe to say that our election would also have been a casualty of the calamity.

No comments: