x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

US voters will choose between two delusions - and no dreams

Will Paul Ryan's presence on the Republican ticket change Mitt Romney's fortunes? Only if the American people decide they won't lose out under a tax-cutting candidate.

People often say the American dream is dead, killed by rising income inequality and declining social mobility. These days it is harder for Americans born into poverty to move up the economic ladder than in many parts of class-ridden and supposedly sclerotic Europe.

But in the US presidential campaign two dreams are very much alive that are exceptionally American, although hardly as inspiring as the original.

The first is that the US government can borrow money from foreigners forever to fund a lifestyle that is not sustained by its economic output. This has been the practice of US administrations since George W Bush in 2001 and is still followed by President Barack Obama who, despite his professed intention to cut the federal budget, is still running a deficit of $1 trillion a year. Every day, the national debt rises by $3.88 billion (Dh14.3 billion), which even for a nation of 312 million is a tidy sum for future generations to pay off.

For the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, and most of his core supporters, this mountain of debt is a nightmare that will lead inevitably to a Greek-style collapse. Their dream is to balance the budget by cutting taxes for the rich and slashing the federal government.

All advanced democracies have similar problems: liberal democracy is an infernal machine for creating debt. Every election requires the competing parties to promise a higher standard of living and more benefits to the voters. In Europe, this gravy train has hit the buffers, and the worst offenders - Greece, Spain and Ireland - are going through painful austerity programmes. Europe has lost its belief in dreams.

If the Europeans have been looking to America for guidance on how to dig themselves out of the pit of debt, they do not see any. The budget is one of the top issues in the presidential election, but the terms of the debate are different in the US than in Europe. US elections are usually followed with breathless interest around the world, but this one has aroused no passion.

One reason is that the word "debate" is hardly justified to describe the mudslinging of the campaign so far. Both parties are covering up their hypocrisy and absence of substantial economic plans with vicious TV attack advertisements. The contradiction between word and deed has been most glaring among Republicans, who call for less government in theory, but usually vote in Congress for more government spending when they have the chance.

That could change, with the appointment by Mr Romney of a vice-presidential candidate in the form of Paul Ryan. A darling of the Republican base for this advocacy of low taxes and small government, the congressman from Wisconsin is no mere decoration. He has dared to put figures to his plans: he has called for a reduction of income tax to two rates - 10 per cent and 25 per cent (down from 35 per cent) and the replacement of the Medicare system of state health insurance for the over-65s with a voucher system, under which recipients would get a fixed sum of money to offset the cost of private health insurance.

Mr Ryan is a much-needed addition to the campaign. But as the manipulative civil servant, Sir Humphrey, in the British TV series Yes Minister, would say of any risky strategy, he is a very "brave" choice.

No one still believes this second dream that the trickle-down effect under which tax cuts for the rich supposedly spread wealth among all levels of society. The only way to balance the books is to slash the federal government, at a time when US infrastructure, education and probably industry too are all in need of injections of funds. This is uncharted territory. Would a President Romney have done the opposite of Mr Bush in 2008 and refused to bail out General Motors, letting its profitable parts be bought up by Toyota or Tata, as free market doctrine would demand? It seems unlikely.

Yet Mr Ryan's appearance on the Republican ticket should concentrate minds on the real issue, which is how much of a welfare state the US can afford. Not much, in his view. The Republican accusation is that Mr Obama is leading the country towards doom-laden European socialism. But could that be what the voters secretly want?

Voters around the world are not known for casting their ballots in favour of reducing their share of public goodies from the government. Will they want, in the name of long-term financial stability, to reduce their health-care benefits and the interest relief on their mortgages?

What strikes the Europeans most clearly is that the obvious remedy - raising taxes - cannot be discussed.

As Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has pointed out, the European countries with the soundest public finances and the lowest unemployment are those with the highest tax take. Bankrupt Greece takes only 37 per cent of its gross domestic product from taxes, compared with the European Union average of 44 per cent, and 50 per cent for the solvent northern European countries such as Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The US figure is a paltry 32 per cent. It is not strictly comparable with the Europeans: the American welfare system is not so generous as the EU model. But still the European experience demonstrates the blindingly obvious point that taxes help to keep the public finances in order.

Prof Sachs is a lone voice, drowned out by the mainly wealthy donors who are contributing an estimated $6 billion (Dh22 billion) to fund this year's US election campaigns. Most of these donors are not in the political game to pay more tax.

It is an open question whether Mr Ryan's presence on the Republican ticket will revive a stumbling campaign or condemn it to failure by alerting key constituencies, such as older voters, to what they might lose from a tax-cutting president. But his presence should at least help to clarify what is real economics and what is a dream.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @aphilps