Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Comments on the Second Presidential Debate

I avoided watching either the first Presidential debate or the VP debate. I have come to view such things as primarily political theater that is not meant to seriously inform me about the candidates beyond what I already have come to know. However, I did turn in to tonight's debate. Despite the risk to my future sanity, I'm glad I did -- but probably not for the reasons that more traditional political observers might suspect.

First, I confirmed my suspicions surrounding the debates being little more than political theater. If this debate is to serve as a good picture of the people from whom we have to choose on November 4th, then we're pretty much screwed as a country. On the one hand, we have a charismatic, relatively young candidate who offers next-to-nothing in the way of specifics. On the other hand, we have a candidate from an earlier generation who seems to still have both feet and his gaze firmly planted there, oblivious to the changes in the world around him. Of course, the talking heads will gush about the "exchanges" between the candidates -- but I found the performance to leave me with more questions than before I watched.

The first question of the debate surrounded the financial meltdown of the United States -- the unraveling of the "wealth" created over the past many years that has turned out to be little more than slips of paper without any real value behind them. Obama's answer first blamed the Bush administration, and then talked about the need for "accountability" and "regulation" while completely avoiding any specifics. McCain, however, did go into specifics. The only problem was that when I did the math required of those specifics, I swear I ended up with an imaginary number!

First, McCain spoke of the need for government intervention in the mortgage crisis and stop the downward pressure on real estate values. His proposal was to have the government buy up all of the "bad" mortgages from the holders, and then to renegotiate those mortgages at current market value, which would enable those homeowners to remain in their homes. This proposal would make the U.S. government the #1 mortgage holder in the United States. Since the government would be renegotiating all of these mortgages at a lower cost than what they paid for them, by how much would this be increasing the federal deficit in a short amount of time? Five trillion dollars? Eight trillion? Ten trillion?

In response to that same question, McCain mentioned the crushing deficit that we are passing on to the next generations, and that we must do something about it. Finally, he read directly from the Republican ideological script and proposed across-the-board tax cuts.

To summarize, it is wrong to pass on such a large deficit to our future generations. So, in order to deal with the current financial crisis -- the roots of which lay in the fact that we are a debtor nation on every level -- the government is going to take on trillions more in mortgage debt AND reduce government revenues by cutting taxes. It reminds me of the old "GOTO" function in BASIC programming, with the result being an ever-increasing deficit. The only problem is that this one is not an endless loop -- it has a nasty fall at the end.

But there's an even bigger problem that I have with this approach. It is the investment of the government into private wealth. I'm not against government investment into the economy. However, I'm against government investment or intervention in areas that do not demonstrate a significant common benefit. It demonstrates to me the fruition of John Kenneth Galbraith's assertion in the 1950s that we were a nation of private affluence and public squalor. Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers grades our infrastructure. I can't remember the last year it was higher than a "D". If we're going to invest hundreds of billions (or trillions) of taxpayer dollars, wouldn't it be more prudent to invest it in revitalizing our infrastructure? It would not only create jobs, but provide us with a lasting product with long-term benefits. This approach was used once before -- by FDR with agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. I'm not saying we should copy this effort wholesale, nor that we will necessarily have the capital for it in the future given the current economic outlook, but if we ARE going to spend taxpayer dollars it should be on something that will benefit that great mass of taxpayers.

Barack Obama claimed that we can reduce foreign oil imports within 10 years. For support in this argument, he cited JFK's call to put a man on the moon within that same time frame. He said that at the time of that speech, nobody knew how we would do it, but that we were able to do it. Ipso, facto, this time we should be able to do the same.

What Obama's "argument" (if you want to call it that) fails to acknowledge is that during JFK's time, the United States had two things in abundance that it does not have today -- cheap energy and capital. Also significant, Obama did not once mention the word conservation in any of his statements regarding energy. Finally, his plan demonstrated either an ignorance or an avoidance of the scale upon which any of these new technologies would have to take hold in order to replace fossil fuels. McCain was not any better than Obama in addressing these realities.

Finally, both of these candidates espouse a foreign policy that supposes that the United States is an exception to history (McCain twice referred to us as "the greatest force for good in the history of the world") and still a global hyperpower. Neither is true, based upon the evidence that I have gathered over my studies. The United States intervenes militarily based upon its strategic and economic interest, not its concern for "spreading freedom." Also, the United States is a declining power in almost every sense of the term -- especially on the military and economic fronts.

My personal belief is that we will try to sustain our global "empire" at all costs, to the expense of all else. The imperial beast will devour our treasury and economy. It will tear our "liberties" asunder. It will chew up our current and future generations of young people. But, at some point, it will end as all empires do. Kevin Phillips sees us adjusting to a role much like that of Great Britain after the Second World War. That is a much more attractive option than the other end of the spectrum -- the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the beginning of the Dark Ages. If the collapse is ONLY the American Empire, then Phillips may be close to the mark. However, if we are in the midst of a epochal civilization falling -- that of "Western" civilization since the Renaissance, and its accompanying importance of the individual -- then I see much darker times ahead.

Regardless of the long-term problems and predicaments we face, what I saw tonight was two men who seem very ill-equipped to deal with them. They are products of our political intertia, a view into the looking-glass of our national psyche. That inertia presently has us moving further and further away from facing up to and dealing with reality before it deals with us.

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