U.S. Elections and the End of the American Dream
“Well done is better than well said,” Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
The history of televised presidential debates in the United States goes back 52 years. On Sept. 26, 1960, two young and charismatic presidential hopefuls, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, faced off in the first such debate, before an audience of millions of Americans. They agreed to hold three debates. The opening round drew a record audience of 77 million, or 60 percent of the country’s adult population. Interestingly, most television viewers said Kennedy came out on top, while radio listeners said Nixon won the bout. In the end, Kennedy won the election. From that point on, television has played a crucial role in America’s presidential election campaigns.
These days, however, presidential debates do not attract as much interest as they used to. The first debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney drew an audience of just 58 million, or 18 percent of the 219 million adult Americans.
This apparent lack of interest arises from the American people’s disillusionment with the government and its programs. As we know only too well, presidents tend to forget their election promises as soon as they take office.
During their campaigns, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama promised each to solve the problem of the country’s undocumented Latino immigrants, whose numbers have topped 12 million.
No president has delivered on that promise, quite predictably. Yet, in nearly every naturalized immigrant family residing in the United States, there is a member that has problems with his or her papers.
U.S. leaders likewise neglect the middle class and especially the generation of Baby Boomers, who were born after the Second World War and began retiring right at the peak of an economic crisis in 2010, only to see the value of their pensions plummet. Even gloomier prospects now loom for the generation known as the Millennials, which Newsweek magazine called the “Screwed Generation.” This group consists of young people between 18 and 29, whose jobless rate exceeds 20 percent. Needless to say, African Americans have the greatest difficulty finding a job.
The tragedy is that neither candidate has a clear program for how to pull the country back from the brink.
For many months now, Governor Romney has been pushing for a federal spending cap of 20 percent of GDP, which would likely result in a $10 trillion shortfall in budget revenues over 10 years. On the other hand, he has proposed raising defense spending to 4 percent of GDP, which would require drastic cuts in non-defense programs, both entitlements and discretionary spending. During the recent presidential debate, though, he pretended to have forgotten all about his proposal, saying he wasn’t planning to pursue any tax cuts. He also attempted to distance himself from his humiliating remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who are exempt from income tax, which were secretly recorded at a fundraiser. Despite all his lies and inconsistencies, the media declared Governor Romney the winner in his first debate with Obama, apparently thanks to his assertive tone.
Similarly, Obama showed no clarity with regard to measures he is planning to take in order to get the United States out of the economic crisis. The only thing he has done so far is to print more money, while the Federal Reserve has initiated three rounds of Quantitative Easing (QE1, QE2 and QE3), facilitating the disbursement of more than three trillion dollars in zero-interest loans to the banking sector. Sure enough, the banks are taking advantage of those loans to further increase their fortunes.
As for corporations, instead of using the bailout money to create new jobs, they have channeled it into increasing automation at production facilities, thus widening the wealth gap. The past two decades have not seen any measure of economic improvement for the average U.S. household, and since 2007, things have been getting visibly worse.
In 2011, the six co-owners of Walmart were worth $70 billion – as much as the bottom 63 million Americans combined.
The prospects of young people in the United States depends more and more on how much their parents make – a trend that, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, has eroded the American dream.
Tragically, the country’s elites aggravate income inequality by blocking legislation meant to narrow the gap in exchange for lavish political contributions.
In Steve Coll’s book, “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s CEO from 1995 to 2003, is quoted as saying: “The corporation’s lobbyists bent and shaped American foreign policy, as well as economic, climate, chemical, and environmental regulation.”
In return, politicians receive generous corporate donations for their campaigns. The dramatic rise in the money involved in campaigns in the past few decades clearly illustrates the problem. Back in 1960, a presidential campaign for both candidates would have cost between $10 million and $15 million, but now the costs have topped $2.5 billion, or more than a billion dollars for each. Candidates with limited campaign coffers are automatically barred from the campaign trail. This creates a vicious cycle in which politicians serves the interests of financial and corporate elites, while the public’s concerns go unanswered.
Stiglitz explains how this funnel system works. In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, he said: “In 2008, President George W. Bush claimed that we did not have enough money for health insurance for poor American children, costing a few billion dollars a year. But all of a sudden we had $150 billion to bail out AIG, the insurance company. That shows that something is wrong with our political system. It is more akin to “one dollar, one vote” than to “one person, one vote…”
It seems like neither Governor Romney nor President Obama is aware of that reality, and that they have no clear plant to get the country out of the crisis. In Stiglitz’ view, the United States has the capacity to loan money at zero interest, investing it in the creation of new jobs. Many other experts, such as Karen Dolan, propose raising an extra $325 billion per year in revenue through “a tiny tax on risky stock and derivative transactions.” According to Dolan, much more could be obtained by fairly taxing the wealthy, which is, taxing CEOs at the same rate as their secretaries. Reducing U.S. military bases in Iraq and closing one-third of the American bases across the world could bring in an additional $130 billion. All this is possible provided the political will is there.
As they look toward the foreign policy debate, Obama and Romney should keep in mind that the U.S. economy is in bad shape, so it is time to get serious about domestic problems instead of waging wars and installing allied regimes overseas. A moment will come when the U.S. electorate, tired of searching for ways to survive the crisis, takes to the streets, following in the wake of the European public.
Globalization has helped us moved beyond U.S. hegemony toward a multipolar world based on independence, technology and politics – things incompatible with dominance by a single nation. The international community is now ready for a “reset.” All it needs is daring and committed leadership.