May 21, 2013
Obama-Romney debate shows little understanding of world affairs
From the red corner (or was it the blue? The US has it own political jargon) Barack Obama sallied forth to do battle with the challenger Mitt Romney and, by asking him what exactly would he do to cure their country’s economic and social woes, soon had him against the ropes. Mitt fought back by insisting that whatever Obama had been doing these last four years had proved worse than useless but he had a “five-point plan” that would save the all-important middle class from sliding into destitution. While the televised set-to was entertaining enough, neither contestant seemed to have the slightest idea of what was happening in the world. Both men took it for granted that “recovery”, that is a return to the, in retrospect, easy-going days before those toxic mortgages poisoned the planet’s financial system and governments started worrying about the colossal debts they had contrived to pile up, could be brought about without anyone, with the possible exception of a few greedy plutocrats, having to sacrifice very much.
With elections just a few weeks away, such happy talk was only to be expected. Politicians do not win many votes by telling people that hard times are coming for most of them and they had better resign themselves to straitened circumstances. From a presidential candidate’s point of view, it is far more sensible to treat trillion-dollar deficits as a minor inconvenience that can be easily absorbed than it would be to admit that, unless they are, living standards could plummet much as they have in Greece and Spain, and did in Argentina barely a decade ago. In some parts of the US, among them bits of California and the manufacturing “rust belt”, that is already happening.
On the whole, the US is in far better shape than Europe, let alone China, the current economic poster boy because which despite still being far poorer per capita than Argentina, it has been growing for years at a spanking pace. US demographics look fairly healthy, it has plenty of oil, gas, farmland and other natural resources, and it leads the way in advanced technology. But even with its considerable advantages, it will find adapting to the often bewildering changes that are about to take place anything but easy. Sky-high unemployment is fast becoming “structural”, the gap between the comfortably off and the rest seems certain to get much wider, and as the baby-boom generation retires, many of its members will share the fate of millions of Argentine pensioners who, after paying into the system for decades, have been fobbed off with a wretched pittance.
Obama and Romney are keen on manufacturing. They want their compatriots to go back to making tangible things instead of leaving it to the Chinese and other East Asians. But thanks to technological progress, more and more of the hands-on work required will be done by machines. So too, for that matter, will an increasing proportion of clerical and managerial tasks. This being the case, getting middle-class people who have been rendered superfluous to work on what Obama once described as “shovel-ready projects” will not be very helpful. As well as having to sweat, they would be obliged to accept wages low enough to allow them to compete with their Chinese and Mexican counterparts, a prospect few find very attractive. Once upon a time, the then governor of Buenos Aires Province, Eduardo Duhalde, thought that banning robots in his jurisdiction would be in most people’s interest. Were a US administration to try it in a desperate attempt to keep the future at bay, the geopolitical consequences would surely be unfortunate.
Like many politicians elsewhere, the two North Americans who are slugging it out for the privilege of remaining, or becoming, “the most powerful man in the world”, think education is the key to most of their country’s problems. But they also feel obliged to take an egalitarian approach and assume that virtually everyone should be able to acquire the skills needed for them to prosper in the high-tech, marvellously productive and debt-free US they seem to imagine is waiting for them just over the horizon. That is nonsense. Though with a bit of effort most people could do rather better than they have up to now, there are limits to what the majority are able to achieve. To make matters worse, as Obama is well aware, the US education system has been deteriorating for decades. There is little chance of it improving quickly enough to provide the results he and Romney would like.
As far as most North Americans are concerned, “it is the economy, stupid”. But the reigning superpower cannot simply leave the rest of the world to its own devices in the hope that others will then treat it kindly. Much as isolationists may dislike the idea, their rulers must choose either to intervene abroad in an effort to shape events or stand aside and run the risk of seeing malevolent enemies, encouraged by what they think are signs of weakness, attack US interests with increasing ferocity, as some are currently doing in North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama talks softly but carries a big stick; drone strikes have become routine. Romney would talk in a louder voice because he thinks it would cow the holy warriors and others of a similar cast of mind. Romney may be right, but things being as they are the rhetoric coming from the White House would be unlikely to make much of a difference.