Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Who's Driving in This Race?
Dear Stumped:

I lived in the United States for close to seven years. I loved it, it inspired me and I still have very close friends from that time. But why in the world does a country like yours reduce a very crucial presidential election to lipstick and pigs? As a cultivated, well informed, curious European, it just boggles the mind. The world is unraveling at the seams, but your candidates don't seem to want to address it. Why?


Dear Elisabeth:

I can assure you that I am not a cultivated European -- not even close -- and my mind is boggled too. Even we Americans shake our heads at this ongoing spectacle and say, "You have got to be kidding me."

One thing we have learned this year is that it is the system, not the candidates, who drive the silliness. This campaign was supposed to be different, we were told (OK, maybe I was one of the ones doing the telling). Barack Obama and John McCain are both serious, independent-minded individuals who weren't supposed to have any patience for the type of sophomoric, dishonest and tacky gotcha politics we've been witnessing of late.

Cut to the lipstick-wearing pig. Both Obama and McCain -- but especially McCain -- are being pilloried for running disingenuous campaigns that distort their opponents' records and positions. And indeed, McCain's campaign seems intent on setting a new low in terms of over-the-top disingenuousness, wanting you to believe that Obama is a flag-trashing, woman-hating, al-Qaeda-loving community organizer who wants nothing more than to organize sex classes for the community's children. Even Karl Rove is disappointed by McCain's antics -- yikes! The Arizona senator, who was once among Washington's most tenacious critics of corrosive political gimmickry, is now allowing his team to perfect the art.

Call me naïve, but I do believe Obama and McCain intended to run higher-ground, decent campaigns. But the candidate barely controls the tenor of his campaign in an age when cable TV and the angry blogosphere set the tone of discourse, and each unrelenting news cycle lasts about five minutes. Haste, whether in attack or defense, is rewarded, and viciousness is demanded by each party's check-writing base. It used to be that a candidate had a great deal more control over his campaign than a president could ever hope to exert over the government, but I am hoping that the opposite is now true. Presumably if elected president, John McCain can go back to being John McCain.

But let me offer an accompanying, more optimistic thought -- U.S. presidential contests can afford to allow a lot of silliness that would be unthinkable in elections in other countries because our campaigns are so obscenely long. Think about it. The senator who takes the presidential oath of office next January will have spent two years running for that office, so what's a week spent on lipstick and pigs? A part of me doesn't remember whether Bush or Clinton was president when McCain started railing against earmarks and Obama started waxing poetic about change.

This is not a pitch for campaigning on meaningless issues; we'd all be better served if presidential campaigns were more compressed. Then it would be clearer that we don't have time to linger on nonsensical issues. As it is, though, with campaigns taking up almost as long as the presidency, there is too much time to be filled with hot air.

Dear Stumped:

Would a second economic Depression have any positive "cleansing" effects on our society?

Gray Finnegan

Dear Gray:

A timely question. I don't want to wish a depression on anyone, though I know plenty of people attribute an older generation's work ethic and sound financial management to their memory of the Great One. Indeed, as the Great Depression was starting to make its presence felt, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon seemed to exult in the downturn for that very reason: "It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people."

Hear that, Wall Street? Back to a more moral life!

There is a grain of truth to what Mellon was saying, even if it was easy for him to say (how many millions did he have stashed away?). But I don't think you need a full-blown depression to get the salutary effects of a correction.

The popping of financial bubbles does have a "cleansing" effect on society. Not to sound too Mellonish, but the drop in real estate values should help first-time homeowners buy a place and will free up investment capital -- and people, too, if you consider how many individuals get sucked into the notion during go-go times that they can make a living as speculators -- for more productive enterprises. I am sure every employer can tell you that young people hired in a downturn tend to be more hardworking and appreciative than employees hired in bullish times.

Slowdowns also force companies to become leaner and more efficient, positioning them to take greater advantage of opportunities when things turn around. Daniel Gross wrote a very good book last year on why bubbles are good for the economy, insofar as the initial craze -- be it to lay down rail tracks or fiber optic cable or to populate the Web with dot-coms -- lays the groundwork for worthier investments in the long haul. As I interpret his book, the popping of the bubble is as necessary and beneficial as the initial creation of the bubble.

But again, let's hope the real estate bubble pops without triggering a full-blown depression.That would just be depressing.

Posted by Andres Martinez | Permalink | Comments (11)
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