Monday 12 September 2016

Hillary Clinton and the Optics of Decline

Hillary Clinton. Photo (c) Politico, AP Images

In terms of optics, the past few days have signaled a downturn for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This downturn reflects many of the symptoms of the political class. And unfortunately, it signals yet another reason why the United States faces incredible challenges in the near future.

Clinton’s Basket of Deplorables

At a campaign fundraiser on Friday, 9 September, she made the following comment (quote from CNN):

"To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables," Clinton said. "Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it."

She added: "And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric."

However true this may be (or appear to be), it is an unfortunate thing to say. Right up there with Mitt Romny’s 47% comment. Also made at a fundraising speech. 

It is important to remember that Trump and his surrogates have been encouraging supporters to “lock her up” and, in some cases, to execute her. I haven’t seen an equivalent apology from Donald Trump about this, even though the chants take place at his rallies, at his prompting.

The next event came yesterday, at a 9/11 memorial service. Attempting to enter her van, she appeared to stumble and fall. This will lend further credence to Republican attacks on her that she has an undiagnosed illness and is not fit for office.

The last thing a presidential candidate should do is appear weak. The second-to-last-thing a candidate should to is insult the voters of the other side.

Yet this is what is happening on a daily basis in this electoral campaign. It frames the terms of the debate. It establishes perception, which may be far removed from any facts.

Elections are Perception. They Distort Reality. Then they Define It.

Events like this begin to frame a larger narrative. It’s clear that the political class in most western countries today has several common features:

·       Elections are fought on perception, not fact;

·       Average voters appear to suspend any form of critical thinking or historical memory, and accept political lies;

·       The political class apparently feels empowered to say one thing in smaller, campaign fundraising events, and another thing in public;

·       I have yet to see any politician or political party offer a comprehensive policy analysis and means-tested solution to the very real problems of flagging productivity, declining competitiveness, demographic decline, fiscal distortion and other critical issues.

Unfortunately, this trend has now spread to the largest economy in the world (in real terms). It has long been there, but the Trump-Clinton election marks a watershed of political failure that will define the new normal for generations to come. 

United States Exceptionalism

The United States is, once again, an exception. But not in a positive way. In many respects, it appears to be a frontrunner of political and economic decline among developed nations. It is not unique in this.

The public debt situation in the United States is deliberately concealed, with Federal debt reported, with very real and tangible debts of key governmental organisations (Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac), state and local government and mandatory unfunded liabilities (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) on the books, but not reported in a consolidated format. This is a widely-known and accepted fiction, which cannot continue without high and unsustainable costs.

Federal spending is only being kept low through artificially low interest rates (ZIRP), which reduce interest expenditure, and through non-consolidation of total public debt.

This high interest expenditure takes place in an era of low interest rates, with FY 2016 year-to-date effective interest rates at 2.237% (in August 2016), lower than the 2.337% YTD figure from 2015.

If anyone is still wondering why the Fed is delaying raising interest rates, this is probably the answer.

Federal budgeting is a disaster, with billions of dollars in expenditure unaccounted for, and trillions recorded by accounting stopgaps.

Economic inequality is now at historic levels. 90% of US households earned $ 33,068 or less per year in 2014. Most working families on minimum wage (or even 50-75% above minimum wage) are essentially wage slaves, unable to meet basic demands.

The Affordable Healthcare Act has removed any semblance of price discipline on suppliers through collective bargaining—due mainly to Republican and Democratic resistance to a single payer system. US basic healthcare remains among the most expensive in the world, for some of the poorest health outcomes on record. The very fiscal prudence that Republicans espouse for the private sector is ignored in the public sector, mainly due to lobbying. The pernicious effects of this are all too obvious.

The US is possibly the only country where key law enforcement (sheriffs) and justice officials (judges) are elected this widely. Where they must collect campaign contributions to win an election. And where they must then sit in a regulatory or enforcement position on the very people who paid to elect them.

US GDP and employment figures are distorted (favourably) by 2-3 key sectors. These distortions extend into tax revenue and policy. A further distortion is seen in the role of the US dollar as a global currency, and in US Treasuries as a reserve of value.

US political campaign finance is a recipe for undue influence and corruption. This is possibly the one area that Republicans and Democrats agree on. Yet this is the one area where neither side can afford to yield in what amounts to a financial arms race.

There is a general political inability to craft sustainable and rational policy responses to key sectors such as public finance, the overall financial sector, electoral reform (at state and federal levels), justice, gun control and registration, healthcare spending, education, manufacturing and trade policy, and immigration. In the absence of meaningful reform, costs rise and competitiveness declines.

Informed observers must look beyond the latest scandalous comment made by Trump or Clinton, to the abject politicization of elected officials and electoral systems from the local level all the way up to the Presidency.

They must look beyond the latest unicorn listing or the next $ 500 billion enterprise valuation to the vast number of companies that fail in the United States every year. Not just in the tech sector—in every sector.

The United States has some of the most unique strengths and advantages in the world. It has made incredible contributions in every sector. It is the oldest functioning, continuous democracy and remains a country where innovation and entrepreneurship thrive despite increasingly expensive mandatory costs and distortions: primarily healthcare and legal.

Unfortunately, none of these positive attributes appear to be reflected in the political system. And politics is, arguably, destroying them.

I am hoping, perhaps against all hope, that the political system will miraculously find a way to stop the decline. But I see few indications of this, and certainly none that are ticking away as fast as the consolidated debt clock.

As mentioned at the start: the US is a frontrunner, but it is not unique. The same trends are clear in nearly every other industrialised democracy in the world today.

The question is not why the metaphorical train wreck will happen. The question is when.

© Philip Ammerman, 2016

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