Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Party Conventions: Politics Edition



I never wrote about politics before, and I am certainly not qualified to do so. However, as I sat and listened to the vilification of the American Dream, I needed a place to vent. In this election cycle, Horatio Alger and Warren Buffet are being replaced by aspirational figures like out of work factory workers and single moms. Don’t get me wrong. I want to see job growth in America and support for people in difficult situations, but helping and aspiring to be are completely different. These guys are both saying it is bad to be rich - USD 75K per year in the case of Obama. It is bad to be a big corporation, like the ones who supply jobs. It is bad to be a special interest group – those people who speak on behalf of minority interests, which would otherwise not have a voice in government. It is all propaganda intended to create a bad guy, a target for anger. A way to focus those bitter feelings we heard about. Through these statements, both parties seem to be asking me to figure out who is most qualified to be the next President of the United States, so on that basis, I guess I am as qualified as any one else. Certainly as qualified as Lindsay Lohan, who chose to share her views with the world.

My biggest disappointment is out of a country of 300 million people, these are the best we can do. When politics was left in the hands of the few inhabitants of the smoke filled rooms, we got Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan. Sure there were some dingers in between, but when the parties’ candidates started to be chosen by the people, we ended up with the telegenically strong, mile wide and inch deep presidencies of Bushes 1 and 2, Clinton and now, Obama or McCain. Mark Pesce gave a great presentation and wrote a great piece about Hyperpolitics. He expands this idea much better than I ever can, but in short, the smoke filled rooms, often put forth candidates who had some relevance to the issues. Upon introduction to the country at large, they were able to court voters the best way they knew how and using the best methods of the day. Maybe we keep ending up with the choice between the lesser of two evils, because we are being marketed to, and not spoken to. We don’t really know what either candidate stands for, and whatever they stood for during primaries is thrown out in favor of more centric positions to draw from the other person’s base. This is why the votes are just about evenly split on a national basis.

The good news, is despite all the railing against Bush, we really can’t go very wrong with either guy. The President really does not have a lot of power. Our middle school social studies class taught us about checks and balances. Cursory review of the newspaper and some Washington oriented reports teach us about the budget process and earmarks. For example, the candidates are talking about the budgets for when they are in office, but they are already set by the last administration. A commitment to no budget increases means there will be no increase over the automatic increases contained in the budgets. No increase means on a little increase. The promises on earmarks are about as useful. The President does not have a line item veto and earmarks, by definition, are the riders stuck on the bills they want to drive through Congress. As much as we like to blame Bush for the war in Iraq, Congress agreed with him. Right now Congress is controlled by the Democrats, but because they don’t get along with the President, when measured by legislative activity, they have been one of the least active Congresses in history.

The President is our face to the world. Sure Obama and McCain will present different faces, but despite the BBC poll, I really don’t see one as being better than the other. Both are not Bush and that is what the world cares about.

According to Google, I have been fortunate enough to have visitors to this blog from 91 different countries and territories. For those of you outside the United States, let me fill you in by letting you know the two major political parties in the United States held their conventions, back to back, the past two weeks. While the number of active voters is significantly lower, people were interested enough in the candidates' speeches to generate a rating almost as high as the final episodes of American Idol. The conventions are a political version of E3 in the old days. All the decisions are already made, and there are no surprises. It is just a phallus waiving opportunity between the parties. For me it is kind of a fun time to see how the Democrats are going to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The election is happening at a time when the Republican president has one of the lowest approval ratings in the history of the office, and all the Democrats have to do, in theory, is put someone on the ticket with a heart beat and a warm handshake. Sounds easy, but they failed to do it last time.

As a devoutly undecided, non-partisan voter, there are really only two general factors weighing on my decision. First their position on the roll of government in my business, and second their position on abortion, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. Sure there are other issues, but these are the places where the President will exert the most power.

The Vice Presidential choice weighs heavily on the decision. It is used to counterbalance the candidate and retain someone to be the bad cop. I am not really into the politics of the whole thing but it is a consideration because VPs replaced 9 of our 43 presidents. With a 20% chance of this person being our next president, they are worth a look. Obama picked Biden. He is an interesting choice. I see the painfully obvious counterbalancing of the ticket. Obama is young, Biden is old. Obama has little experience in Washington, Biden has a lot. Obama has a full head of hair, Biden has plugs. I shouldn't talk about the implants or the face lift, we don't vote based on appearance. Once I get beyond the superficial, I really don't see the choice. Biden ran for president on his own a number of times and no one seemed to care - or notice. Through his Senatorial service and position on the Foreign Affairs committee he has traveled a lot and met a bunch of foreign leaders, but so have Bono and Angelina Jolie. He has not been in a position of authority, or met with them when they thought he could actually do anything.
McCain took the same superficial approach as Obama. He went for the polar opposite. He’s old, she’s young. He is scary and robotic, she is a former beauty pageant participant. He is middle of the road, even viewed as liberal by some on the Republican right, her views could make Pat Buchanan look like a liberal. Some think McCain made the decision to gain the Hillary Clinton voters, but I don’t think they were so superficial as to think they would. They wanted her act and Middle America is eating her up. It’s not surprising. Snappy one liners? Check. In your face comments? Check. Supporting pregnant teenage daughter? Check. They nominated Roseanne to be Vice President of the United States. We kept her show on the air for ten years, why wouldn’t we put her in office for eight? Based on the percentage chance of migration to the head office, the decision creates a consolidated candidate and for my analysis, their views are weighed in with the views of their proposed boss.

On the VP choice, I would have to fall on Obama’s side. I can’t in good conscious support someone who feels creation theory should be given equal stature in schools to evolution. Who knows, creationists - excuse me - intelligent design theorists, may be right, but it is a religious ideology. Despite temporary lapses, our forefathers made a decision long ago to separate church and state. My kid is in a public school, his curriculum should not be colored by a religious agenda. I can’t even look at the experience issue. Figuring out what experience makes you a good president is kind of like when they tried to find relevant backgrounds for acrobats in The Right Stuff. There is no good training.

Getting into the issues, it’s kind of hard to figure out where the candidates stand on most issues. If I take a step back, you can glean an idea from the generalities coming out in the speeches and Obama sure knows how to do the speech thing. The spectacle of a stadium full of people listening to the political speech is something I am not used to seeing in the United States, or in a democratic country for that matter. I thought those scenes were reserved for epic 8 hour Castro speeches, or the ones with burning effigies. He is unquestionably the holder of once in a generation attention commanding charisma. His oratory skills enable him to capture the audience and inspire with his words, a very important skill in a country where decisions are made based on sound bites and the all important acceptance speech must fit into the time allotted on prime time national television. His modern day "two chickens" in every pot couldn't help but appeal to almost every American. Better health care, better education, freedom from foreign energy reliance, an independent Iraq and the whole rest of the candy store.

When it comes to fixing problems, Obama wants to roll up his sleeves and get involved. Hands on, get to work kind of guy. He suggested paying for his plan through tax increases - which are likely to happen with either candidate - but also suggested windfall profit taxes, government investment in clean technologies, government provision of health care, stricter CAFE standards and revision of NAFTA. I already knew he didn’t like me. My career choices, like most of my video game brethren, took me out of his target demographic and placed me into the bad guy pool of people who should be taxed. But more significantly, he doesn't like Adam Smith either. I find it hard to believe, when he is the guy who said this:

“I believe that America's free market has been the engine of America's great progress. It's created a prosperity that is the envy of the world. It's led to a standard of living unmatched in history. And it has provided great rewards to the innovators and risk-takers who have made America a beacon for science, and technology, and discovery…We are all in this together. From CEOs to shareholders, from financiers to factory workers, we all have a stake in each other's success because the more Americans prosper, the more America prospers.”

Basic economic theory says you tax the things you don’t want to see, and relieve taxes on the things you do want to see, the market takes care of the rest. He is saying he does not want to see oil companies profit, ok, but with this, he is also saying he does not want to see oil companies have incentive to grow. The windfall tax will only be passed on to the consumers through higher costs at the pump. The companies will still make the same profit, it is the consumers who will suffer. If you want to do something effective, give the oil companies incentives to develop clean energy. Those are not in place today. As far as wind fall profits. Adam Smith answered it already. Oil consumption went down when gas prices went up. Gas prices hit exceeded the point consumers were willing to pay, and they stopped buying gas. Oil companies responded, and lowered the price. It works. The same holds true of CAFE standards.

President Ford introduced the CAFE standards in response to the oil crisis in the seventies. He set a goal for auto manufacturers to achieve a 27.5 MPG average across manufacturing lines. The auto industry met the challenge and achieved the goal. It was also caught flat footed and opened the door for foreign competitors to enter the market with the cars their consumers had been demanding for years. Some suggest the industry is in the position it is today because of the CAFE standards. Obama supports raising the standard again when the consumers already spoke. The auto manufacturers made SUVs because people wanted them. With rising gas prices, people are dumping SUVs and the auto manufacturers are responding with more efficient cars. No CAFE changes, but the industry is self-correcting. Adam Smith was right again.
Finally, Obama wants to invest my tax dollars – remember, I am the one with the increase – into new technology development and technology incubators. Great idea - for the private sector. If I am investing, I want equity. Moreover, once something is done by the government, it becomes lowest common denominator. The government is the place I go when no one else will invest in my. This kind of stuff makes the scary old man look good.

McCain did not give the speech Obama did. His challenge was somewhat different. He had to show potential voters he is alive. In short form he comes off as an angry old man. But given some time, at Saddleback College, and now at the convention, he changes from the nasty old uncle everyone hates to straight talkin’ grandpa who has seen it all. It’s no surprise he addresses all the same issues as Obama, the surprise is how close their views actually are. McCain is going to make the country a better place to. He obviously saw the positive response Obama was getting from this “change” thing and incorporated into his program. He is going to drive change as well. An interesting proposition from the guy who voted in line with “he who shall not be named” 90% of the time. McCain wants to fix health care, drive toward energy independence, put teeth in CAFE standards and strengthening of NAFTA. The good part is he doesn’t want to role his sleeves up and do it, he wants to make it easier for us to do it.

Incentives make the relevant party choose to do the things you want, without paying for them to do it. The companies know they save money and build value by investing in clean tech. Incentives build value and jobs in the private sector without using my tax money. He even wants to award a USD 300 million prize to the person with the best battery technology. Ok, the last one is kind of wacky but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

McCain addresses CAFE standards as well. He doesn’t want to change the number, he wants to add teeth to the system. Today’s manufacturers make a decision to meet the standards or pay a penalty, which is passed through, to the consumer. McCain wants to make the penalty real. Not great, not so bad.

Like Obama, McCain doesn’t like me much either. He says he is not going to tax me, more – he probably will – but all of his plans are for people in the same financial situation as Obama wants to help. He also says he won’t cater to special interest groups. He and Obama both call them a bad thing, but by definition, they speak for the underrepresented who otherwise would not have a voice. Obama does want to protect union membership and union actions, but does not like special interest groups. I don’t know if I know the difference, but I guess he does.

The government’s role is really determined how far gone we believe we are. Obama’s green technology job creation investment, and incubators sound eerily similar to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Much of the New Deal was later found to be unconstitutional, but it pulled the country out of the Great Depression. Nothing short of these actions would have worked. McCain’s incentive driven strategy is more line with the Reagan program which effectively pulled the country out of the Seventies malaise and teed up the prosperity of the Clinton years. I may be a bit of an optimist, but I think we are closer to 70’s malaise than ‘30s meltdown. On this one, I have to fall on the McCain side. Obama, and most of Congress never ran a business, how do they know where to invest, and how to measure success? They just don’t. I like McCain’s stay out of my business.

Finally we get to the question of abortion. While the issue, is very important, it is more of a barometer than a focus. The issue provides insight into the candidate’s perspective on The Supreme Court. The Supreme Court determines the meaning of the laws established by Congress. Their most controversial, and best-known decision is Roe v. Wade. Appointing a Supreme Court Justice is the most powerful thing a president can do. The appointments live on for years after the president leaves office and color the law for generations. Right now we are at a critical time in the life of the court. We are about evenly split on liberals and conservatives, but the grasp of liberals is tenuous. Republicans say they look for strict constructionists. That’s code for people who will overturn Roe. The right to choose was found not in the Constitution, but in the penumbra, or shadow of the right to privacy. A strict constructionist, like Alito, Scalia or Thomas, would not recognize the right because it is not in the document. They say justices like Ginsburg “legislate from the bench” when they find human rights which are not specifically written in the 200 plus year old document. As she says, the document was written at a time when “We the people” did not include her. Women were not allowed to vote. John Roberts who is one of the most respected and intelligent jurists of our time and Kennedy who assumed O’Connor’s seat as the swing vote, hold the court in place. The delicate balance will be upset with the next retirement from the court. Justice Stevens is 88 years old and has been on the bench since 1975. Breyer will be seventy this year. Alito and Roberts are still in their fifties. This is scary.

I point to Roe, but it is not only Roe, which will be impacted. Search and seizure, privacy rights, affirmative action, taxation, and just about everything you can think of as a citizen of this country will be impacted by the decision. Those guys on the right are the ones who intervened in the Florida election and have interesting perspectives on torture.
When asked which justice they would not have nominated in the Saddleback interviews, the candidates each responded predictably. Again, for Saddleback, this was a Roe litmus test. Obama focused on Thomas and Scalia. He said Thomas was not a strong enough “Jurist or legal thinker.” Thomas now has almost twenty terms under his belt for Obama to consider. The real reason he would not nominate him, or Scalia is their interpretation of the Constitution. These guys will overturn Roe.

Predictably, McCain chose the other side of the bench. Ginsburg, Souter, Breyer and Stevens. He is much more straightforward than Obama, maybe because the audience is on his side, when he speaks the code words. He tells the pro life audience, in code, he will overturn Roe.


Even though he did not say it as well, on this one, I have to come down on the Obama side. These appointments are for life, and the thought of moving from a court defined by O’Connor’s balancing and Rehnquist’s firm hand to a one sided conservative forum just doesn’t sit well.

In summary, there is no clear winner for my vote. Lots of people have already decided, especially on the west side of Los Angeles, but I keep waffling. It could be effective marketing on their part, and it could be my seemingly genetic inability to commit. Either way, we are now in the last 2 minutes of the game, and a lot of stuff is going to happen before I have to make the final decision.





2 comments:

Captain Obvious said...

Meaningful change will not come from a Democrat or a Republican. The two-party system is hopelessly tainted. Many of the reasons you listed for why you like the candidates are positions each have suddenly taken during the course of the presidential campaign, and their lip service is disconnected from the positions they are known to support.

There's been much talk of Bush. He may have set a new low, but the problems have persisted for decades under the leadership of both parties. You acknowledged that the President really doesn't have all that much power. Regardless of which candidate "wins" in November the same puppeteers will continue to pull the strings behind the scenes, and the citizenry will ultimately lose.

Captain Obvious' Brother said...

If Voting made a difference, it would be illegal.

- some wise anarchist.

We're going to see the same agenda regardless of who the face is. Only difference is the voice lying about it. Picking a politician is like picking an i-pod skin and nothing more. Look at the past since Reagan if you don't believe...