Global View: What are politicians for?

By IAN CAMPBELL  |  July 29, 2004 at 2:36 PM
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"What are days for?" asked the English poet, Philip Larkin. "Days are where we live," was his initial answer, though solving the question ultimately involved "the priest and the doctor, in their long coats, running over the fields."

"What are politicians for?" is another question we might ask, and one that could equally well lead us to the priest or the doctor, particularly now as the monumental madnesses of the Democrat convention and the U.S. presidential election campaign get into full swing.

Take this on Tuesday, from Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the man who will lead the Democrat ticket into November's U.S. presidential election: "He (her husband John Kerry) believes that alternative fuels will guarantee that not only will no American boy or girl go to war because of our dependency on foreign oil, but also that our economy will forever become independent of this need."

An end to war, an end to dependency on foreigners, an end to nasty oil: oh what a dream!

We are in the country, after all, shaped by Hollywood, the dream factory.

Yes, how convenient it would be not to have to import oil from troublesome foreign countries, many of them gathered in an area of the world known as the Middle East where many people now hate the United States. (And why? Might be useful to discuss that seriously in the election campaign, but no one will.) One happy day, no doubt, the United States might be able to do without these people's oil. But the unhappy truth is that that day will not come during a Kerry term, nor a second Kerry term, nor at any time in the next thirty or forty years.

Unless, that is, Teresa Heinz or husband John has a truly revolutionary and environmentally-friendly energy strategy in mind whereby Americans cease to use cars. That step would end America's dependence on foreign oil.

"Please could you clarify, Mr. Kerry, is your policy that Americans should cease using cars...?" This strategy, however, would have a number of consequences quite a few Americans would not like.

Strange indeed the Kerry team did not think of the unhappy consequences of doing without foreign oil -- the utter collapse of the U.S. economy -- before making dreamy promises.

And there are more of them. On the John Kerry Web site it promises that Kerry and his vice-presidential candidate, John Edwards "want to reward hardworking middle-class families with tax breaks, not larger bills."

About "tax breaks" we know. President George W. Bush has come up with plenty of them and has sent the budget deep into deficit. Does America need more tax breaks? It seems it does. Kerry and Edwards want to "reward" American families. Why? Is it government's job to give out presents? And should the government in debt itself more and more to do so? This is what Bush has been doing. But shouldn't Kerry, rather than offering more of the same, perhaps point out that this is irresponsible?

And let's not let pass, "not larger bills." It is a truly pathetic comment. It suggests that Kerry and Edwards have some magic formula with which to cut Americans' bills.

Bills have been going up. Health bills, in particular, but that is largely because no American politician has had the guts to tackle America's health care mess. But which major politician would suggest major reform? None. Instead the politicians offer more benefits, and forget about costs. It is easier to do that. More popular. More populist. Because radical reform would upset plenty of people and America's 'leaders' are into smiles and votes, not serious reforms.

So the Kerry platform becomes this: Yes, we will give you hardworking Americans more tax breaks, and we will cut your bills. But of course we don't plan fiscal indiscipline. Oh no. For another of the team's priorities, apart from tax breaks, is to "Make Washington Live Within A Budget." Yes, they are going to cut the deficit in half.

Of course, there's a thing or two needed to achieve all this, some tough action, and the thing or two turns out to be largely foreign. Not surprisingly because people in other countries are not voters in an American election.

"John Kerry and John Edwards know that we're stronger when we create good-paying jobs here, not ship them overseas," the Kerry Web site says.

This is a reference to outsourcing. One of Bush's economic team, Gregory Mankiw, made a comment in February that outsourcing was a good thing, and promptly had his tongue cut out by a fellow Republican, House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Kerry and Edwards see outsourcing as territory on which they can score. Their definition of outsourcing might be, 'Big business, backed by big Bush, wins; ordinary Americans lose.'

This is another fiction. Using overseas plants and workers is something American business has been doing for decades: decades during which the standard of living of Americans has risen higher and higher.

The United States has also negotiated a number of foreign trade deals over those enormously successful decades. These, too, it seems, are suspect. "We will demand our trading partners play by the rules they've agreed to and show them that America means business when it comes to enforcing our trade agreements. The Bush Administration has refused to enforce our trade agreements," says the Kerry Web site.

Wrong. The Bush Administration has been keen on breaking America's trade agreements in order to do just what Kerry and Edwards are promising to do: shaft those foreigners whom no one cares about because they have no votes in an American election. It was Bush, after all, who put steel tariffs up when the United States was committed to not doing so under World Trade Organization rules, and Bush who bolstered the farm bill, to the huge disadvantage of the millions of people in Latin America, Africa and Asia who are many times poorer than Americans.

But those are facts and we are not dealing with facts here, but fiction: the fictions Kerry and Bush will use in the unscrupulous fight to win the election.

For that, it seems, is what America's modern politicians are all about: not speaking uncomfortable truths but "rewarding" voters with giveaways, blaming foreigners, blaming trade: populism.

And yet the United States does not lack serious problems to debate and address. We could mention, for example, America's alienation from the rest of the world, its soaring health costs, its often poor education system, its economy unbalanced by asset price booms and tax giveaways.

But addressing these problems does not seem to be what either Bush or Kerry think they are for. Their aim is to win power, or retain it. With any nonsense.

Does this matter?

It does. Because problems that are not addressed get steadily worse until they grab the country by the throat.

Sometimes then, in crisis, serious leaders emerge. No sign of that yet in the United States.

Global View is a freelance column reflecting on issues of importance for the global economy. Comments to

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