Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Joe Stiglitz writes in the Financial Times today (sub. only) that it [the US presidential election] is most definately not about "the economy, stupid". He also inadvertently tells us exactly why Kerry is losing, if you read closely enough.
As an economist, I wish I could say of the upcoming US election: "It's the economy, stupid!" or just: "Jobs, jobs, jobs". But in this particular contest, the stakes are far greater than just the economy. . . .

But there are far more fundamental issues at stake in this election, centring on values: fairness, the balance of welfare between current and future generations, openness and transparency, the role of science, a sense of community and the meaning of American leadership. The huge Bush deficits are placing an enormous burden on future generations with little to show for it - other than the growing rich-poor divide and tightening squeeze on the middle class. The deficit has not financed more investments or research, nor has it improved education; the gap between the promise and fulfilment of these basic needs has even increased. America's problem in financing a social security programme could have been solved if Mr Bush had used part of the surplus he inherited from the Clinton years. Instead, that surplus has been squandered - and as a result, the compact joining one generation with the next is likely to be torn asunder.

Another aspect of that broken compact is the environment: Bush environmental policies, from increased arsenic in the water to growing air pollution, from unfunded toxic waste programmes to increased threats to natural wildlife, are spoiling the world our children will inherit. . . .

. . . if we are to live together in harmony, there are certain bonds that cannot be broken - bonds that reach across generations and ensure that those who are better off help those less fortunate.
There are other bits in the piece, but these excerpts give you the broad thrust of Stiglitz's comments. The theme that comes through again and again is the future. According to Stiglitz, Bush is ruining the future. The deficits are "an enormous burden on future generations". The problems with Social Security undermine the "next" generation. Dubya's environmental policies are "spoiling the world our children will inherit". Bush has "done nothing" about global warming. His entire set of policies and politics are destroying "bonds that reach across generations".

Fair enough. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that the Boy King is indeed destroying the future. But that is exactly why most people (according to the polls) are going to vote for Bush in November; because the future is not here yet and thus inherently unknown. At least, there is always the possibility that things will be different from what we expect, even if that chance is very low, and that gives voters the luxury of supporting profligate acts today because they are not paying the consequences now.

Even more importantly, our failure to pay the consequences now (e.g. through higher taxes, higher interest rates, terrorist attacks in the US, a military draft, an economic depression, the end of Social Security checks, etc.) allows us to interpret the past, and thus the future, too, as far more rosy than it really is. Iraq is going to hell in a handbasket, but there is no military draft, no terrorist attacks in the US, no tax hikes to pay for the war, and no general Middle East war. So, says the Bush voter, why worry about the future when the past has been so good to me?

Individualistic democracy has a fundamental problem with intergenerational questions. The future can't vote in the present, and our individualistic ethos says "damn the future" and let them sort their own problems out. By appealing repeatedly to the future, Stiglitz is making an especially weak argument for the present.


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