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State of US Politics

11/05/2016

I had an opinion piece in today’s Otago Daily Times on the confusing nature of the ongoing US presidential election.  Bronzed billionaire Donald Trump, whom Washington Post columnist George Will famously called a “bloviating ignoramus”, looks set to win the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders has persisted in the Democrat race much longer than expected. “Trump and Sanders keep pundits guessing” is the headline that was chosen and I think that’s an accurate summation of the article. I begun by pointing out, as I and I’m sure many other observers did back last year, that Sanders and Trump have  similarities in their exclusionary rhetoric.

Here’s the key point from my fourth paragraph:

Both have laid the blame for American social and political problems on a disliked “other” group. Mr Sanders rallied against the “billionaire class” while Mr Trump has scapegoated foreigners in cynical fashion.

Here’s the penultimate paragraph from the post I wrote back in September last year:

Both, if their rhetoric equate[s] to their policy platforms, are economic protectionists (note Sanders is no fan of immigration). Their rhetoric plays to those disaffected and disillusioned by politics but ultimately trumpet an exclusionary message. This politics of division, which both candidates share, rests on the common belief that we live in a zero sum world, that anything I should gain must come at your expense  or vice versa.

Sadly the situation hasn’t got any better and, as economist Greg Mankiw points out in the New York Times, it isn’t only Sanders and Trump who peddle zero sum economic stories.

The author of Principles of Microeconomics carefully sets out six populist economic stories told by the remaining 2016 crop of presidential candidates; Trump and Sanders plus Hillary Clinton. Mankiw notes Republicans are wrong to claim that tax cuts, by themselves, would stimulate so much growth as to prevent large budget deficits. Trump, Mankiw highlights, is wrong in his claim that America doesn’t make things anymore – in fact manufacturing output has increased. What is true is that manufacturing employment has declined. Another point Mankiw makes is that, while trade obviously hasn’t been a boon for those who have lost their jobs due to increased foreign competition, economists pretty much agree that past trade deals have benefited most Americans.* In spite of this; Trump, Sanders and Clinton have all stood against trade and oppose the TPP.  Mankiw also notes the amount of tax the one percent does pay and critiques the idea, promulgated by Sanders and then Clinton who has followed the Vermont senator’s rhetoric, that the American economy is rigged.

Mankiw’s final myth is perhaps the key one for this US presidential election and, indeed, any political candidacy. It’s worth quoting this final myth in full:

The next president can quickly fix all of our problems.

All candidates like to offer themselves as panaceas. “Vote for me and the economy will skyrocket, the poor will see riches without bound and that annoying wart on your foot will finally disappear.” Yet the power of the president — or even the entire government — is more limited than is often acknowledged.

Yes, there are things that can be done. A better education system, for example, would both promote growth and ameliorate inequality. But there is no magic bullet to improve our schools, and even if we succeeded, the economic impact would be felt slowly over many years.

Just once, I would like to see a candidate with a platform of humility: “Vote for me. If elected president, I won’t make a nuisance of myself.”

That doesn’t offer the inspiring vision of greatness that we have come to expect from our presidents. But by expecting too much, we set ourselves up for the inevitable disappointment that follows.

Therein lies the problem. Expectations are just too high.

*Research by economist David Autor and colleagues has complicated this picture just slightly. In a paper entitled “The China shock”, published back in February, it was found that job losses in manufacturing concentrated areas of the country had not been offset by other employment opportunities. For more on that here is an econtalk episode featuring Mr Autor.

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