Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 January 2012

Signs of a Sick Democracy: the First New Hampshire “Debate”

[For a list of questions that the moderators of last night’s debate should have asked—and that every moderator of a presidential debate should ask—click here.]

I watched my first GOP debate last night. I watched it from beginning to end. What I saw was evidence of a sick, sick democracy.

That impression took hold even before the actual debate began. There was Diane Sawyer, the central of three moderators, dressed to the nines, with inappropriately heavy and flashy earrings. She looked like the rich hostess at a grotesque dinner party.

And that’s exactly how she acted. Her grandiose and condescending manner put her somewhere between the MC at the Academy Awards and a rich heiress inviting not-too-welcome guests (us, the people) into her palatial estate—one far too elegant for the invited hoi palloi to appreciate.

Everything about her revealed what the debate itself made incontrovertible. This was a grand show for us, the rubes. Any relationship to governing our country was purely coincidental.

After the debate Diane grandiosely and obsequiously thanked the specially selected audience and the candidates’ families, as if they were all doing us, the people, a great favor just by showing up. I had to turn the TV off quickly in order not to vomit on our coffee table.

Maybe Diane was subconsciously telling us something we all ought to know by now: what a sham these debates and our so-called “democracy” have become.

But—believe it or not—the debate itself went downhill from there. I didn’t keep exact count. But I would bet no more than ten minutes of the discussion focused on what we, the people, care about, or ought to care about: jobs, our economy, and our future as nation. The rest was alpha bulls strutting their stuff and jousting with each other, and the moderators deliberately encouraging them like schoolchildren at a football match.

No doubt thinking himself sooooo clever, George Stephanopolous opened with an abstract, hypothetical question about state regulation of privacy and birth control. His question confused the roles of the President and the Supreme Court and no doubt went completely over the head of every viewer who is not a lawyer. Romney batted it away like the intellectual fly dropping that it was.

You couldn’t find better evidence than that question of grossly overpaid people not giving a damn about the rest of us. Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz and cut our oil addiction cold turkey. A teenage mutant tyrant is now in charge of North Korea. China has sucked up our jobs, intellectual property and wealth. Europe is about to explode the financial system for the second time in four years, if our own casino banks don’t do it first. And Stephanopoulos opens with an abstract, hypothetical legal question that belongs in a constitutional law exam at a third-rate law school.

My first thought was that I had never seen as incompetent moderation of a presidential debate. But that was assuming that the purpose was to edify the public and not just put on a good show.

If the purpose was—like all the later talk about gay marriage and the President’s alleged “war on religion” (Newt’s words)—to distract us from our troubles and let rich people continue stealing the substance of our nation while it declines irretrievably, then the question was brilliant! (Do you begin to see why I don’t spend a lot of time watching televised political debates?)

Apparently the media arranged the candidates according to their showing in Iowa. There was Romney, in the center, fielding the vast majority of questions. Jon Huntsman, Jr.—the only candidate willing to admit to being a moderate—was on the left, and Rick Perry on the right.

How cute! That placement was certainly appropriate for Perry. At the end of the debate, responding to Diane’s general question, he said he would have been at the shooting range on Saturday night if he hadn’t been there.

I never attribute motives or intent to people I don’t know well. But ABC, which staged this farce, could not have arranged a better coronation of Romney if it had planned every detail for that purpose.

Again, I didn’t count exactly. But I’d be surprised if Romney didn’t get at least half again the air time as any other candidate on the stage, and at least twice as much as Huntsman, the only one in my opinion qualified to be there.

Romney rose to the occasion, with a good debate performance, as such things go today. He gave no hint of detail but struck an optimistic and forceful tone. He made the music of an alpha male without any words at all. He even managed to show some emotion about our nation’s future—something his consultants no doubt have told him had been lacking so far.

The same pro-leader bias infected ABC’s little “teasers”—choice excerpts from the immediately preceding portion of the debate that ABC aired between ads during commercial breaks. Their relevance and even punchiness varied directly with the candidates’ distance from central Romney. For Huntsman, they picked an utterly meaningless clip of two abstract sentences—from a segment in which he had made at least two cogent and unique points.

And if you think ABC’s stage-managing wasn’t close enough, know this. ABC has “helpfully” culled what it thinks are the “highlights” of the debate and presented them for you, on a site that makes it hard or impossible (I tried, without success) to do your own browsing. (I’m not providing a link because I think it stinks.)

ABC’s clip headings even ridiculed Huntsman for using a phrase of Chinese. If you fall for that, you might as well give ABC your vote, too. But try to find a clean feed of the whole debate on the Web. I couldn’t. All I could find last night was independent edits, each touting its own candidate or point of view. Thus have our “mainsteam” media degenerated from reporting the news to telling you what and how to think.

By now you may have wondered why I, a substance freak, have spent so much ink on appearance and process. The reason: there was hardly any substance in the debate at all. If you want to see it, just watch the last eight minutes or so. (I couldn’t tell precisely how long because I couldn’t find a clean feed. That’s what we get for giving a private firm, ABC, an exclusive on a presidential debate. This is democracy?)

There was also an earlier bit of substance about infrastructure. But if you’re in a hurry, you can skip it. The candidates who spoke about infrastructure all said they’re for it. Only Huntsman laid out a concrete plan to pay for it, complete with an amount. Two or three others said they had a plan but gave no details or figures.

And so it went.

The last session did serve up a tiny bit of substance. ABC saved it for the very end, when the children would be asleep.

As it turned out, there were actually some good ideas. Several candidates proposed cutting corporate taxes in order to make our manufactures more competitive abroad. Huntsman’s proposals, as usual, were more concrete and sensible.

But none of the candidates bothered to explain that their are four relevant tax rates: (1) the corporate tax rate for ordinary income, (2) the corporate tax rate for long-term capital gains, and (3) and (4) the same two rates for individuals. Lowering corporate ordinary-income rates makes it easier for corporations to offer products cheaper. Lowering long-term capital gains rates (whether on individuals or corporations) encourages long-term investment and long-term thinking—a point I have made myself. But lowering individual tax rates on high ordinary incomes just makes the rich richer, without corresponding economic or social benefit. You don’t have to be a genius to understand why no Republican explains these vital distinctions.

And so it went. The “adults,”—our plutocratic masters and their shills—don’t discuss anything important while we children are present. They drop a few key words so the more attentive among us won’t feel offended. They tend to do so at the end of the debate, when we children are tired and sleepy.

But mostly they talk about “hot button” issues that have absolutely no bearing on our jobs, our standard of living, our children’s future, our national security, or even whether we can keep our homes. And the media are completely complicit.

We think we have a democracy! Anyone who believes that so should spend a few hours watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. Now those were real debates about real issues. If you want to know how much we, the people, have been excluded from our governance, just compare them to the sham last night.

And so, children, how was your play today?

P.S. (1/9/12) I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that I favor cutting corporate ordinary-income or capital gains taxes for the purpose of drowning government in a bathtub. Obviously any revenue lost from cutting those taxes would have to be made up by increasing taxes elsewhere.

That truth would force Republicans into an uncomfortable tradeoff. If they wanted to reduce corporate ordinary-income tax rates for the purpose of making American businesses more competitive, or to reduce long-term capital-gains rates for the purpose of encouraging longer-term investment and thinking, they would have to compensate by raising individual tax rates, at least for high earners.

I haven’t done the math to see how high the individual tax rates would have to go, and for how low incomes. But I would hope that Republicans who care about their businesses would be willing to make the individual sacrifices necessary to keep their businesses competitive and their workers employed.

Eleven Questions for All Presidential Candidates

The foregoing essay might seem a bit snotty to young people who’ve never seen a real presidential debate. So I thought it might be helpful to demonstrate more directly the abysmal incompetence of the moderators last night. Doing so is consistent with my general philosophy on this blog: I try not to identify a problem without providing some sort of solution.

Here are eleven questions that moderators of any presidential debate—Democratic or Republican—could pose to every candidate for president of the United States. They are really obvious questions when you think about them. They mostly track the list of our grave national problems, which have festered for an average of 17.5 years. They’re unlikely to change unless new and unforeseen crises add new substantive subject matter. The chances of the problems they implicate being solved by next November are infinitesimal.

Moderators should pose these questions in the order listed below. Why? Because people in our scatterbrained culture have the attention spans of gnats. So you want to pose the most important questions first, before the audience zones out. Putting fluff first and last is a form of sycophancy that candidates for president do not deserve. They are, after all, applying for the job of our supreme leader.

Here are the questions—actually groups of questions, including follow-ups:

1. Jobs. What specific steps would you take as president to put unemployed and underemployed people back to work? If your proposals would cost money, how would you pay for them? If they would require congressional action, what compromises and other inducements would you make to get the other political party to go along?

2. Foreclosures. Various estimates put the number of home foreclosures since the Crash of 2008, including those now in progress, at two to four million. How would you address this economic and social problem? Would you seek to keep people in their homes or expedite the foreclosure process and “clear the market”? How would you advance your goals, and what would you do about cases where the firm stuck with the loan has no or insufficient documentation? If your program costs money, how would you pay for it? And how would you get the other political party to go along?

3. Finance-caused economic crashes. In just the past century, we have suffered two major global crashes, the Great Depression and the so-called “Great Recession.” Finance, not industry, caused both. In 1929 it was the financial “innovation” of buying securities on margin. In 2008 it was unregulated derivatives, mostly mortgage-backed securities, which became “toxic assets.” What specific steps would you take to get derivatives and other financial “innovations” under control and insure that the “Great Recession” is the last global financial collapse caused by banks and other financial institutions? How would you fund those steps, and how would you get the private financial sector and the other political party to go along?

4. Energy. Some energy analysts expect oil prices to advance steadily as soon as the global economy recovers. In 2011, we imported about 9.5 million barrels of oil per day. At a cost of $100 per barrel (not too far from where we are today), that’s a balance-of-payments deficit—a sort of direct “tax” on our economy—of nearly a billion dollars a day. How would you reduce it? How much would your solutions reduce our foreign oil consumption, in oil barrels or barrel equivalents, or by a percentage? How would you pay for your proposals, and how would you get the other political party to go along?

5. Economic inequality. Right now, economic inequality in our country is the worst it has been since the Gilded Age a century ago. The ratio of CEOs’ pay to the average worker’s pay is over 400. In Germany it’s about ten. Would you as president try to reduce that ratio and restore economic equality? If not, why not? If so, how? How would you pay for your proposals, and how would you get the private sector and the other political party to go along?

6. Broken government. Gridlock in Congress is not likely to end next year, no matter what happens in November’s elections. A large part of the problem lies in our Senate, where filibusters have become routine and easy—without the actual speechifying portrayed in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And individual senators, without any collective action in the Senate, can put “holds” on legislation and presidential appointments, often anonymously. Should a president try to solve these problems and, if so, how? Would you support a constitutional amendment to change these practices, use your “bully pulpit” to expose, castigate and ridicule them, or something else?

7. Immigration. An estimated twelve million undocumented immigrants live in this country. Most do jobs that Americans sometimes say they would do but seldom actually do, at least for the wages the illegals accept. Businesses exploit these illegal immigrants economically, and politicians exploit them electorally. What would you do as president to stop this vicious cycle and get control of our borders? How would you pay for your proposal, and what would you do to get the other party and immigrant advocates, including our growing Hispanic community, to go along?

8. Military policy and expense. President Obama has proposed saving about a trillion dollars by reducing the Pentagon’s ability to fight two major wars simultaneously. He proposes being able to fight one major war and simultaneously deter another aggressor—a sort of “war and a half” strategy. Do you agree or disagree with his proposal? If you disagree, what specific two wars with what specific two foes do you think we should be ready to fight? Under what conditions are those wars likely, and what else, besides greater spending on our military-industrial complex, would you do to prevent them?

9. Specific threats. Insofar as reported in our press, our intelligence services believe that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Do you also think so? If so, what steps would you take as president to prevent or delay Iran developing nuclear weapons? Would you limit your action to sanctions and diplomacy, or would you go so far as to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and infrastructure—acts of war? What guidance would you take and what help would you seek from the international community, and how? What would your goals be for North Korea? Would you seek to limits its nuclear arsenal to existing weapons, to get it to destroy its arsenal, or something else? How specifically would you accomplish your goals: by working with North Korea’s neighbors, by direct engagement with North Korea, by inducing China to apply pressure, or otherwise?

10. International democratic movements. The last year saw an explosion of popular movements for democracy throughout Greater Arabia and in places as unlikely as Syria and Moscow. Movements in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to succeed without violence. But Egypt’s movement may be turning violent, and Libya required international military intervention. In Syria, a tyrant is busy murdering his people. Some analysts fear that these movements in Arabia, which often involve Islamist parties, will ultimately threaten international stability. Do you see these movements as generally positive or generally destabilizing? Would you seek to advance or suppress them, and how?

11. Science in America. From our Manhattan Project (which first developed atomic weapons secretly, in the midst of war), to lasers, transistors, integrated circuits and the Internet, our nation has been supreme in science and technology. Now we are coasting at best, losing ground at worst. Europe has taken over high-energy physics with Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider. Russia and China both have manned space missions; we no longer do. And the Hubble Telescope—which advanced mankind’s knowledge of our Universe more in twenty years than in all of previous human history—is going dark. What would you do as president to restore our nation’s pre-eminence in basic science, including space science? How would you pay for it, and how would you get the other party to go along?

* * *

There! That wasn’t so hard, was it?

You would think that someone like George Stephanopoulos, who reportedly gets paid $ 6 million per year, would be able to come up with at least some of these simple questions. But, as the report of his grossly excessive pay headlines, he’s a “celebrity,” not a journalist. Maybe that’s part of our problem: we take “debates” for entertainment and let “celebrities,” not professional journalists, run them.

When celebrity replaces education and professionalism, a society inevitably declines. You need look no further than Rush, Glenn, Sarah and now George for evidence. That’s not something we are going to solve in this election season. But at least we can get our debate moderators to ask some decent questions, and follow up.

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