Peddling dreams, hope and change but no beef

Voting, like jury service, is a civic duty.  Unless you get a warm glow inside from doing your civic duty, it is not individually rational to vote, as the odds that your vote will matter for the outcome are just about zero. So voting should be mandatory, or at least turning up at the ballot box ought to be – the right to tick the box marked: ‘none of the above’ should also be guaranteed.  Unfortunately, only a few enlightened countries like Belgium still have mandatory voting.  The result of leaving it to individual discretion is too often a pathetic turnout rate.  Twenty percent or less of the eligible population in some European Parliament elections.  Fifty percent or less in US presidential elections.  Such poor turnouts undermine the legitimacy of whoever gets elected and of the political system that puts up with it.

So I will vote, or at least turn up to vote, in the coming US presidential elections.  Will it be any of the above?

On the Republican side, I could not under any circumstances vote for Mike Huckabee.  That is simply because I don’t support the Taleban. Mitt Romney is an unprincipled political weather vane – a social liberal when it might get him elected to the US Senate for Massachusetts or to the Governorship of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a social conservative when it may get him the nomination.  Quite happy to peddle populist protectionist poison when it may help him in Michigan.  It’s good that his religion no longer appears to be much of an issue.  It would be worrying if the US electorate could elect a moron but not a Mormon. I’d take Romney over Huckabee but I’d rather settle for McCain. McCain is long on personal integrity and character.  For someone who doesn’t know any economics, he has the right market-oriented liberal instincts.  With the right advisers he could make an acceptable President.

On the Democratic side it’s slim pickings.  Hilary Rodham Clinton I cannot forgive for botching the best opportunity for US health care reform during the past fifty years -  in 1993 during Bill Clinton’s first administration.  I am also deeply underwhelmed by the personal honesty and integrity of the Clinton Duo – and in the integrity stakes it really is not possible to see where one ends and the other begins. Her populist economic instincts (different from those of Bill Clinton who was a dedicated defender of free multilateral trade) are also ugly.  It would be good, even other things being not quite equal, to have a woman as US president for a change.  On the other hand, having lived through Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and having observed Sirimavo Banderanaika, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto from a distance, the quality of political governance looks to be gender-independent.

What about Barack Obama?  If there is one thing I dislike and mistrust it is a charismatic politician. At its worst and most dangerous, charisma is the stuff of demagogues and rabble rousers, who appeal to child-like fears and emotions rather than to reason. Charisma is a preferred weapon of  anti-democratic politics.  Hitler, Stalin and Mao were among the great charismatic leaders.  May their likes never return.  Obama is charismatic in a lighter, more professional PR- and Hollywood-honed way.   My dislike for the triumph of style over substance, form over content  and appearance over reality dates right back to my first exposure to US presidential elections – the victorious campaign of John F Kennedy in 1960.  I want character and policies.  With Obama it is impossible to get a sense of the first.  We have seen all but nought of the latter.  Any politician who bangs on about dreams, hope and change must be covering up a terrifying vacuum of substance. 

As far as I can see, Barack Obama has only two recognisable policies.  The first is for the US to get out of Iraq immediately. Regardless of what one thinks of the reasons for the US going into Iraq, and regardless of what one thinks of the design and implementation of the US strategy in Iraq since 2003, rushing out now would be lunacy.  Barack Obama’s second policy concerns health reform. Unfortunately it is fatally flawed, because it does not de-couple health insurance from employment.  Having health insurance cover should be conditioned on being alive, not on being employed.  As for the rest of Obama’s plans, there is hope and change and bipartisanship and quite a bit of the vision thing, but not a single darn thing with a price tag. Nothing substantive on the Palestinian problem, on Afghanistan, on the environment, on social security, on tax and benefit reform, on gun control, on the US incarceration rate, on the Doha round, on international approaches to financial regulation …. The list of unaddressed issues is awe-inspiring and comprehensive.

Would I vote for Barack Obama because of his race?  After 43 white males as US president, it would be an encouraging sign of political maturity to elect a female or a non-white for a change.  Barack Obama’s election would do nothing, however, to address the two great racial legacy problems within the territory of the US.  The first of these is the plight of the native Americans who were dispossessed through deceit, conquest and genocide, often after first being weakened by pandemics.  The second is the still unresolved legacy of black African slavery in the US.  Why would a mixed-race child of privilege like Barack Obama, with a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, be more likely than any other candidate to make a difference to the condition of descendants of black African American slaves, in particular those who remain caught in a vicious circle of underachievement and discrimination?   

Unfortunate indeed is the country that feels in need of a charismatic leader to solve its problems.  Blessed indeed is the country whose institutions are so strong that it can get by with boring, reasonably competent  public administrators.  Have the  key economic, political and social institutions of the US  now been hollowed out and corrupted to such a degree that hapless hope may triumph over reason?

I hope McCain gets the Republican nomination.  That way I won’t have to spoil my ballot in November.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website