Friday, October 26, 2012

Voter, Blame (Or Pat) Thyself

Cynicism pays.  Mitt Romney doesn't seem to be hurting from switching positions in the blink of an eye to whatever his audience of the moment wants to hear.  All his "then and now" video excerpts  played by Jon Stewart in the Daily Show and by other media haven't stopped his upward momentum in popularity.  With two weeks to go before elections he's pulled even with (or even slightly surpassed) Obama in national polls.  Pundits on average have Romney's chances of winning the election improving from less than one in four a month ago to almost even now (though NerdWallet still has him only at 29% today.)

And then we have India where corruption, the role of money in politics, inefficiency and populism has severely affected economic growth. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a clean image is called an underachiever by Time in its July 16 issue for failing to check corruption around him, and to stick his neck out for reforms.  With a few notable exceptions it looks like elected leaders of whatever party or political platform are on the take.

Looking at India and the US as examples, are the virtues of democracy as great as they're cracked up to be?

"Even the worst democracy is better than the best of dictatorship." Thus said then Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani of Pakistan in Feb. 2010 and I've heard this sagely intoned in our polite circles in India for decades. 

Really? Will average Chinese citizens trade places with their Indian counterparts, including the growth rates over the past quarter century that have made the Chinese thrice as rich?  A June 21, 2011 article in Business Insider lists the most economically successful dictators of the past century, and generally left their people a lot better off than before.  England's golden age was in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned (1558-1603) wielding absolute power, seeding the idea of benevolent despotism

Still, the odds favor democracies.

Corruption and misuse of power can flourish in any political system, but democratic checks and balances like a free press and independent judiciary can better restrict the most egregious behavior.  An Oct. 26, 2012, NY Times story describes $2.7 billion of wealth amassed by the once humble family of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.  Compare this to Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law and Priyanka's husband whose wealth grew in 3 years from $100,000 to "just" $60 million.  And consider that Robert Vadra's alleged misdeeds are being widely reported and criticized by Indian media, while a tight lid is kept in China on any adverse news about its leaders.

Democracy has another thing going for it - people choose their leaders and hence are responsible for their own plight.  Chance still plays a role, of course.  Two prime ministers, Narasimha Rao who started economic reforms and his successor from the opposing party A.B. Vajpayee, were better than expected, and India thrived.  Mr. Manmohan Singh isn't terrible but he fell short of his high promise.  In US recent history Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush probably represent the opposite ends of the performance spectrum.  

Still, in past presidencies and the coming general elections of Nov. 6, US citizens decide on their leaders, for better or for worse.  There's no one else to blame or congratulate for that choice, whether it's made with eyes wide open, or out of ignorance.  Does there have to be a lot of the latter for the Republicans to win?  After all Republican stances on important issues like taxes, health care coverage and the social safety net are less favorable to the middle class (and the poor of course) than Democratic ones.  In the NY Times on Oct. 24 Nicholas Kristof describes how Obama's economic policies trump Romney's.  Instead of USA's steady if modest recovery under Obama, Europe style austerity measures favored by Romney and Republicans would have led to Europe style economic crisis.  Yet Republicans can only clinch elections with substantial middle class backing.

Election propaganda and voter ignorance of course play a role, but more complex factors may matter more.  Man does not live on bread alone, and factors beyond material and physical benefits may turn the scales to explain why many in the middle class identify with Republicans. 

Are Romney supporters oblivious of his duplicity, especially the 95% who lose out in Republican intent to "broaden the tax base" while lowering taxes for the richest? Some are, though many more may simply overlook it because his party's platform is closer to their disposition on social values, religious zeal, immigration and racial issues, etc. 

In a few days we'll know who and what wins out.  And with the US being a great democracy our voters will get to live with their choices.

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