Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Big Picture?

There are many small pictures being painted now about the 2010 national mid-term elections, why they turned out as they did, and to where they lead in the next session of Congress and to the 2012 presidential election. Some of these pictures are crude, but others are finely fashioned, and yet, following the tough expressions of the voters in 2006, 2008 and 2010, small pictures do not seem adequate as we look forward to a provisional and disturbing period ahead.

But what is the big picture? To attempt to draw such a picture, however imperfect, requires a suspension of personal ideology, partisan “spinning” and pre-determined outcomes. I suggest we begin with as many “facts” as possible.

I think it is fair to say that most American voters are distressed not only about economic conditions and rivalries, and external threats, but also about the performance of elected officials and non-elected public bureaucrats, and about government behavior itself. It is not just that there is opposition to higher taxes, and an inexorable growth of government in every citizen’s life, There seems to be a growing doubt that the collective structure of government itself is not working well enough, fairly enough and honestly enough to serve the public needs of today.

This is no small matter. It is also not the fault of only one political party. In its current mood, the U.S. electorate is alternately cleaning the houses of both parties, and with a velocity which has no real precedent in American history.

The American republic was founded on some revolutionary (for its time) principles that attempted to create a workable system of balancing the rights of individuals and the needs of the society of individuals. In a very creative and far-thinking way, the founders of the republic created a constitutional document, since rightfully amended, to make a people’s government do its job, do it well, and enjoy public confidence.

Our national history has had more than few bumps. The original constitution was drastically limited in its civil rights and suffrage, It took a civil war to expiate some of the basic inconsistencies of our earliest governance. The nation, at its inception, had great size, and it grew larger over time, but the population was very small until waves of immigration bulked up American society in time for it to play an important and unique role in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and the Technology Revolution of the 20th century.

We are the third largest nation in population, but our total is only one-seventh that of China and India, each with more than one billion each, and eventually they will dominate the world economy. It took them some time to arrive at even where they are now because they were to slow to adopt the market structure of democratic capitalism. China persists in employing capitalism without the democratic process, and that will slow them down, but both the Chinese and the Indians have traditions that will, at some point, provide the largest economic markets in the world.

This new “reality” has only become evident in recent decades, and it has upended U.S. labor markets as well as our financial and product markets. In turn, this has provoked continued and growing unease among American workers who, in the current economic downturn, face chronic unemployment and lack of training and opportunity in the new and resulting American economic markets. Consumer confidence in these circumstances is shaken.

Government intervention in economic markets has, at best, a mixed history, and most Americans know that when government tries to run or manage traditionally private markets, it usually fails, and fails badly. That is because government management is not a free market, but instead is a state-run monopoly. We have historically permitted the state to manage certain aspects of the public sector, particularly domestic police and national military functions, but whenever we have allowed the government to go into free market situations, they fail to come close to the traditional success of private free market management. Why should we be surprised? We are, and have been, a free market nation for more than 200 years. Our society and its success have been based on those free markets.

Governments employ unpopular means when they interfere with free markets. They assess taxes and fees, and impose regulations and controls. Some of the latter are necessary to protect public health and safety. Large societies, by necessity, need to place some limits on free markets. Recently, some excesses of U.S. free markets, especially in financial institutions, have produced an economic crisis. Some may argue that past government interference, in the form of taxes, regulations and prohibitions, contributed to that crisis, but the fact remains we are in an economic downturn fueled by failures (described often as “bubbles”) in the private real estate, investment and technology sectors of the economy).

In the past, these economic downturns were soon replaced by economic upturns. This particular downturn seems to be persistent beyond the usual time frame, and some are arguing that the unprecedented government intervention in the markets is causing the problems to persist. Both Republicans and Democrats are complicit in this government intervention. Just as along U.S. participation in the Viet Nam War, with no success in sight, produced a voter reaction in 1968, the U.S. participation in the Middle East, produced a reaction in 2006. The mortgage banking crisis weeks before the 2008 presidential election effectively ended the campaign in favor of the Democrats, but when the Obama administration continued the “bailout” policies of the Bush administration, and compounded these with unprecedented federal intervention on the free market U.S. economy, voters again reacted by dramatically changing the make-up of both houses of Congress.

Does this mean that voters will refuse to re-elect President Obama in 2012? If he and his administration continue their current policies, and these policies continue to fail, we will have a new president on January 20, 2013. If the Republicans resist these policies, and come up with successful policies to replace the Obama program, the new president will be a Republican. The Democrats, as I suggested months ago, could also refuse to re-nominate Mr. Obama and then select someone who the electorate might have more confidence in residing in the White House, especially if the Republicans fail to nominate their most able candidate (whoever he or she might be).

The best candidate for each party will be the person who most ably diagnoses our current circumstances, and sees the biggest picture of where we are and where we need to go from here. The best candidate for each party will have the best understanding of the U.S. role in the world in the years ahead, and how we might navigate through the natural evolution of the world economy, as well as face down and thwart the malign threats the U.S. faces from totalitarian figures and regimes across the globe.

Let this conversation begin.

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