At a time of crisis, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan make claims and counterclaims, and fail to address the issues facing America honestly.
Four years after 2008, the economic crisis persists and candidates running for office keep trying to pin the blame on each other. Biden and Ryan debated against the backdrop of the Chinese renminbi hitting a 19-year high against the dollar. The entire world economy seems to be slowing down. When China reports its third-quarter economic data on October 18, it is likely to post a seventh successive quarterly slowdown. The Eurozone is not too healthy and emerging economies such as India and Brazil are wobbling too. For a nervous American electorate, debates are opportunities to see where candidates stand and whether they can be trusted with the nation's future.
Sound and Fury
The debate between Biden and Ryan was feisty. Unlike the previous debate where everyone including Obama agreed that Romney had won, this debate has evoked widely differing reactions. Both Gerald F. Seib of the Wall Street Journal and Mark Mardell of the BBC liked the debate. The former called it a "real debate" while the latter has written that it "was a serious, substantive debate between two men who were well briefed and on their game." Fox News predictably did not like the debate or Biden's smile and deemed him both dishonest and disrespectful. The Atlantic's staff writer Molly Ball was clearly unimpressed by the debate and called Biden's performance "breathtakingly strange and boorish."
Throughout the debate, each candidate contested everything the other said. What was alarming was that they could not agree on the facts, so what we got was assertions and counter-assertions. This writer grew up in a debating tradition and wonders if a debate is even possible in the days of television and partisanship. On matter of style, both candidates were solid. Ryan was calm and focused. Biden, for all the talk about laughing too much, did not concede any further ground after Obama's capitulation in the previous debate. What was missing though was a deeper engagement with the issues that define the destiny of this nation.
A Dire Economy
The big issue facing America is the economy. Superpowers in the past have often declined because their economies ran out of steam. America has been transformed from a creditor to a debtor. The productive base of its economy has narrowed. A drive through America reveals rusting towns and crumbling cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. These were once the centers of industries such as automobiles, steel, glass and so on. Today, there are few jobs and they no longer pay as well. A small section of the American population that works in Harvard or Google is still competitive globally. However, an increasing number of Americans find themselves in a world where they are too expensive or too unskilled to compete against the Germans or the Chinese. The cleverest Americans work in software and finance. They no longer build things, tangible things, and, therefore, there are fewer jobs to go around. The average Americans are increasingly working in coffee shops and restaurants. Unemployment remains at a stubborn 8 percent mark four years after the economic crisis began and, as stated earlier, the jobs people hold do not pay as much. Meanwhile the costs of food, fuel and healthcare have gone up.
There are real debates to be had about the economy. Romney and Ryan are right when they say that increased government is not the long term answer. They are right when they say that Social Security and Medicare need reform and that tax policy needs to be rationalized. Obama and Biden are right when they talk about the hollowing out of the middle class, and the need to revitalize it. Inequality has been rising since the Reagan era and most studies show that social mobility has been falling. The problem is that neither side is honest about telling the American people that painful sacrifices are essential if the country is to avoid the long slow road to decline. Biden's "honey, it will be okay" smacked of politician talk and Ryan's promise of 4% growth was more of the same.
America certainly needs to create jobs and grow the economy. For this it needs reforms to regulation, immigration and education. Currently, all three systems are broken. The problem with regulation is that it needs implementation. Often, the government is not the place the smartest people work so those that are supposed to be regulated stay one step ahead of the regulators. Too much regulation leads to increased costs. This means that bigger existing players are the only ones who can afford it and smaller new players simply get priced out of the market. A healthy immigration system keeps labor markets dynamic. Immigrants are invariably hungry and often entrepreneurial. The genius of America has been to assimilate its immigrants in a way no other country has yet managed. An originally WASP nation has a black man, a Mormon and two Catholics running for office. It has been a place where minorities have risen to the highest echelons of society. Yet immigration laws are so absurd that they encourage illegal immigration. Even highly educated immigrants who start companies and create jobs in this country are worried about being booted out. Education is in crisis. While America has institutions like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Caltech, its schools are in dire straits. Mathematics and Science are taught badly in schools and, even in an economy with few jobs, there are shortages of engineers and scientists.
No candidate talks candidly about the challenges America faces. Ryan talked about lowering government dependency and creating a growing economy but did not say how he would do it. What regulations are choking the economy and why? What will his party do about immigration where its more right wing elements believe that a fence on the Mexican border will stop the teeming multitudes from overrunning their land? What are his ideas about education without which the American worker will never be competitive in a global marketplace? Similarly, Biden had little to say on regulation except for chanting the Democrat mantra that regulation would tame market excesses. He talked about saving the companies in Detroit but failed to mention that the reason these companies got into trouble was because they were poorly run with bad management and hostile unions. He provided no insight about how to create the next generation of jobs. There was no mention of immigration or education, and there was little between the two candidates instead of the clear choice that some in the media so clearly see.
Hypocrisy and Dishonesty
During the debate, the one place where hypocrisy shone through more clearly was foreign policy. Ryan's claim, that Obama's foreign policy was unraveling and leading to chaos, was preposterous. Obama's foreign policy has not been marked by genius but he certainly has not capitulated in the way Ryan portrayed. Republicans have long painted themselves as the "Daddy" party, strong on guns, national security and defense. The argument that America under Obama has been apologizing for its values was jingoistic and out of touch with reality. Arguing that the cuts in the defense budget were an abandonment of American values was hilarious. It is ironical and hypocritical that neither Romney nor Ryan served in the military but pretend to be macho military men. Ryan was woefully out of his depth when explaining how he would act differently on Syria or Iran. He did not seem to recognize the messiness of international geopolitics where America is neither rich nor powerful enough to force Russia and China to get in line with its policy. More importantly, he threw in accusations thick and fast to prey on the insecurity of the American people. This fear-mongering does little good to a country still reeling from the after effects of the Bush presidency where American discourse lowered the prestige of the country internationally and lowered its credibility even amongst special allies such as the UK. Ryan may have offered the red meat that his supporters crave but his foreign policy proclamations were marked by bad judgment and poor taste.
Biden was less guilty of playing fast and loose with foreign policy than Ryan. His main sleight of hand was Afghanistan. Pretending that American troops would be replaced by Afghan troops after the pullout was pure fantasy. Afghanistan is an artificial entity where a bunch of tribes have been yoked together by historical accident into a nation state. Afghans draw their identity from and owe their loyalty to their tribe. The state has no functioning institutions. Once the Americans leave, the area will inevitably descend into chaos. To claim that the Afghans will see a cliff and get their act together is untrue.
America and the entire world face crisis. The financial system as we know it has failed. There is concentration of power in a few banks that are too big to fail. The world economy is slowing. In many countries including America, deficits are high and there is no easy way to bring them down. The Republicans since Reagan have lost their principles. They have run high deficits and failed to balance the budget. Government spending under the Bush administration grew by 3.1 percent per head annually, a figure exceeded only before under Lyndon Johnson when he embarked upon the creation of the Great Society. Democrats claim credit for reducing the deficit under Clinton but fail to mention that he was president in benign times with strong economic growth. Obama inherited a colossal financial crisis and continued with an expensive fiscal policy to avoid a full blown recession.
Both parties are prisoners to interest groups that form their core support base. Republicans never mention "carried interest," a legal loophole due to which a hedge fund manager or private equity baron pays a 15 percent tax instead of a 35 percent tax on income like other Americans. Democrats never mention tort reform, which is essential if healthcare costs are to be controlled. These are times that call for courage and sacrifice. Instead, what is on offer is pusillanimity masked by bluster, rhetoric inflamed by emotion, and debates that are dishonest.