Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 2012

I am sorry for my American friends. They deserve a better choice when it come to electing their president. And, given that this is the most powerful political position in the world, we non-Americans feel cheated too.

But, as I pointed out in my last post, an electoral system appropriated by the super-rich is not likely to deliver the best candidates for public office. While waging wars in the name of “promoting democracy” abroad, the US is increasingly shackled by a political system that is converging towards that of many Third World countries. (Voter turn-out is usually much higher in the latter, though).

Neither Obama nor Romney offer anything that addresses the problems that global society faces, or even the American public. But the latter should not forget that, in the eight years preceding Obama’s presidency, government greatly expanded its reach into individuals’ lives, constitutional safeguards against executive power were shredded, the deficit ballooned, the economy was wrecked, corporate reform shelved, and American soldiers sent abroad to fight two unpopular wars. There is thus a huge gulf between Republican principles and the Republican track record. That is why I said that anybody who votes for Romney/Ryan has taken leave of reality.

But, more tragic than U.S  politics is the sorry state of those sections of the American Church that proclaim themselves “Bible-believing”. Wealth not only corrupts politics, it dulls vision and kills prophetic speech. It turns the Church into a cultural ghetto. It has no voice in the public square, except for the shrill voices within it that regularly denounce abortion and homosexuality. One shudders at the call by Franklin Graham (son of Billy) for a new “moral majority” that will only elect politicians who promote “the sanctity of marriage” and “protection for God’s beloved nation, Israel.” (Decision magazine) Such pious nonsense is exported to the rest of the world by Americans who do not care to learn from the global Church.  Vociferous “Bible-believing” Americans like Graham have simply lost the (Biblical) plot.

Since Rheinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., no Christian public intellectual has emerged in the US. Yes, there are outstanding Christian theologians and philosophers; but most of them seem to talk only among themselves. Younger Christian scholars in major secular universities are too busy securing an elusive tenure to stick their necks out and expose the public myths that sanction injustice. And by the time they get tenure, they have nothing substantial to say.

The late William Stuntz, a law professor at  Harvard, was an exception. Just before his death last year he published a masterly work detailing the collapse of the American criminal justice system, a work that is unlikely to be read in any white-dominated Christian college or seminary. (There is a plethora of Christian colleges and Bible seminaries in the U.S- probably more than the rest of the world combined. Outsiders marvel at what effective brainwashing techniques they use to turn out so many ill-informed and chauvinistic alumni).

A typical refrain from the subculture that is misleadingly called “evangelical” in the US is that to be “pro-life” means always voting Republican. The politically naive vote for Republican candidates in the hope that they will repeal the abortion law. They are constantly fooled. They voted for Reagan in 1980, and Reagan cynically used them and let them down. Indeed his divisive economic policies forced more women into poverty and increased abortions and children born out of wedlock. On the foreign policy front, he armed and trained death squads all over the Americas, and brutal dictators all over the Middle East and Asia. No “pro-life” evangelical church leader ever raised his voice against these policies. If “pro-life” is taken to mean that American foetuses are more valuable in the eyes of God that Palestinian babies or Iranian and Pakistani children dying because of American governmental actions, then that is not the God of the Bible.

Unlike many evangelical church leaders who are blatantly and cynically one-sided in their “pro-life” rhetoric,  the US Catholic Bishops Conference tends to be much wiser and more comprehensive in their ethical stances. Roman Catholics also run many adoption agencies and counselling centres in poor neighbourhoods, thus offering mothers an alternative to abortion, something that the vociferous evangelicals seem not to do.

Then there are those who attack Obama for having “divided America”. They cannot have read much of American history. When was the US ever united? Obviously no black will make such a comment. Nor will anybody who lived through the 1960s as an adult, or the 1980s under Reagan. Bush’s controversial “war on terror”, with its shredding of constitutional safeguards for Americans with Arab names, seems to have faded from memory. And the substance of my post was about the Great Divide between the 1 per cent and the rest of the US, a divide that one cannot blame on Obama.

Isn’t the moral outrage of the rich a wonder to behold? In the Republican lexicon, when governments take from the poor it is “efficiency”, but when they take from the rich it is “theft”! Those poor, persecuted billionaires.

What the US needs for its cultural renewal and political transformation is not more single-issue crusaders; but, rather, for more “Bible-believing” Christians to become “Bible-reading” and “Bible-obeying” Christians instead. Or, better still, for them to leave their Bibles, read their “secular prophets”- the Chomskys, Stiglitzes, Ehrenreichs, bell hookses- and then return to their Bibles. They will be surprised by what they will discover there.

[No new Blog posts in November as I am on a speaking tour in Western Europe]

“It’s the Economy, Stupid” was Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign slogan in 1992.

Economics began as the science of political economy, but now most conventional economists regard the economy as a quasi-autonomous area of human interactions, shaped by trade and technology far more than politics. How refreshing, then, to discover two recent books by Nobel Prize-winning economists- Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz- who emphasize the role that politics has played in bringing the American economy to where it is today. (In the interests of transparency, let me say that I have not read either book, only browsed them in bookstores and read some reviews.)

We all know that the biggest transformation in the American economy since the 1980s has been the stagnation of the middle classes and the dramatic rise of the “1%”- the “super-rich” to which men like Mitt Romney belong. In the five years to 2007, the top 1% seized more than 65% of the gain in US national income. In 2010, their share was a staggering 93%. This did not create greater prosperity for all; on the contrary, much of this gain was “rent-seeking behaviour”, taking wealth from others rather than creating new wealth. In the last three decades, while the bottom 90% have seen their wages growing by 15%, the top 1% have seen wage increases of 150%.

When Republicans talk of wanting “limited government”, what they really want is a government that subsidizes the rich, that panders to big business rather than helps meet the basic needs of the majority.  Those who use the language  of self-reliance and  equal opportunity are usually parasites themselves, feeding off  inherited fortunes or the labour and sacrifices of others.  In 2008, insurance giant AIG was bailed out to the tune of $150 billion by US taxpayers- more than the total spent on welfare to the poor in the entire period 1990 to 2006.

Stiglitz, among many others,  has documented the way the US government regularly subsidizes economic activity that has real costs for both American and global society—whether by failing to require companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions or allowing billionaire hedge fund managers to pay taxes at rates far lower than those affecting middle-class families.

Government-subsidized agribusiness giants wreak havoc on American farmlands. They also contribute massively to rural poverty in other parts of the world.  The spectacular profits of the U.S energy industry rely heavily on what economists call “negative externalities”: costs that the rest of society pays for (e.g. climate change, environmental degradation) but which do not appear on the accounts ledgers of the corporations that are responsible for those costs. Similarly, the aggressive trading that goes on in Wall Street creates huge risks for the economy as a whole. Yet, without effective regulation, the people who bear the costs are the struggling millions who are thrown out of their jobs or their homes or both.

Putting a stop to these and other forms of rent-seeking behaviour would thus promote both efficiency and greater equality. Both Stiglitz and Krugman are passionate about the need for political reform. They lament the growing isolation of America’s economic and political elite from the struggles of ordinary Americans. A majority of Americans have consistently told pollsters that creating jobs is a much higher priority than tackling the deficit. And when asked how deficits might be reduced, the public strongly endorses increasing taxes on the wealthy and cutting defence spending. But these opinions cut no ice in Washington.

Democracy in the US is now largely a sham. The US Supreme Court has interpreted the US Constitution in a way that removes all restrictions on campaign spending. What this amounts to is that rich American individuals and corporations can buy presidents and congressmen. The support of a billionaire now counts vastly more than that of an ordinary citizen, making a mockery of the principle of “one man, one vote”.

Moreover, as the Princeton political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter has pointed out, “Both major US parties routinely use their power when they win to redraw electoral districts’ lines to favour themselves and hurt their opponents. And, in some states, the Republican Party is openly trying to impede voting by requiring citizens to show official photo identification, which can be difficult and expensive to obtain. These requirements are a new version of the poll tax, which Democrats in the American South used for years to disenfranchise African-American voters.”

I have criticised Obama often enough in this Blog for his use of extra-judicial executions, unpiloted drones (imagine the response of the U.S citizenry to daily terror inflicted by Iranian or Pakistani drones on their towns), and the failure to close down Guantanamo Bay and  prosecute all those responsible for sanctioning torture in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, on the domestic front,  he deserves some sympathy.  He has had to battle racial prejudice and religious phobias. To get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, he has had to confront well-financed defenders of the status quo, and compromise with major industries like pharmaceuticals and insurance.

But, given his failings, how any sane person can vote for Romney/Ryan simply baffles me! One belongs to the class of tax-dodging parasites. The other proclaims himself to be an unashamed devotee of Ayn Rand’s militantly atheist creed of glorified selfishness and ruthless greed. And they both have absolutely no understanding of the world beyond the U.S. One cannot imagine deeper depths of moral bankruptcy and intellectual sterility to which the Republican Party can sink.



October 2012