Tuesday, November 6, 2012

US outspokenness is a virtue worth importing

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06 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

The US might be in gradual decline on several fronts, but its political contests remain in the financial stratosphere, writes Tony Leon

DURING the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama frequently invoked the observation of 40 years earlier by Martin Luther King, on whose shoulders his campaign stood, that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice".

Four years ago today, I was resident in Washington DC, where we celebrated election night with a party in the attic of our brownstone rental for a group of visiting South Africans and a few locals.

Watching the drama unfold on TV, it seemed less like political spectator sport and rather more like a shimmering event of historical redemption. Fortified by the obligatory takeaway pizzas and beers, we were all glued to the TV at that around-midnight moment when Obama passed the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency and the networks proclaimed him the winner.

I turned away, almost choking on the significance of the fact that the next occupant of the White House was part East African and that he would soon inhabit a residence built two centuries before by slaves of West African origin who, in the words of David Remnick, "had no last names or carried the names of their masters". I noticed that there were few dry eyes in our TV den as we observed the conjoining of a moment of American exceptionalism with a reminder of its more shameful past.

Tonight’s result is likely to be much closer and certainly less historic than 2008, assuming that Obama, as polls suggest, does indeed nose ahead of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. The Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released last week shows that, barring a last-minute surge, Obama is going to fall well shy of the 52.9% he won in the 2008 election. It might still be good enough to win, but it won’t be resounding.

The key defection among previous Obama supporters has been across the board among white voters. But although whites still constitute three quarters of the electorate, Obama has maintained his narrow lead by his high retention rate of black and Latino voters, the latter being the fastest growing group in the country.

But the standout feature of today’s US election is that it is the most expensive in the history of the planet. The US might be in gradual decline on several fronts, but its political contests remain in the financial stratosphere, and today’s exercise cost about $2bn for the rival presidential candidates and an overall $5bn for the entire cycle, including the primaries and congressional races.

Race-holding or reversion among voters was perhaps to be expected, especially in hard financial times, although even the most jaded South African would have been offended by the T-shirt worn at a Romney rally in the all-important state of Ohio, which proclaimed: "Put the White Back in the White House."

But the deep animosity, often verging on hatred, Obama inspires in the far less crude and doubtless less racist enclave of the US, big business, is one of the more surprising features of this contest.

Chrystia Freeland noted in a recent New Yorker article that Obama has served the rich "quite well".

His administration supported a $700bn bail-out of Wall Street and resisted the siren calls from the left (such as Nobel prize winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz) to nationalise the banks. At the end of September, the stock exchange rebounded to just a few percentages below its prefinancial-crisis high. And Obama is hardly the first Democrat to inflict slightly higher taxes and more oversight of the group we now dub "the 1%". Franklin Roosevelt, the patrician and immensely wealthy president during and after the Great Depression, was dubbed a "traitor to his class".

But the invective and dollars that have been hurled by the super-elite against Obama have been astounding. One of the US’s richest men, hedge fund founder Leon Cooperman, drew a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich. Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman compared Obama’s effort to eliminate tax preferences for private equity firms to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In the pantheon of the mega rich, Warren Buffett stands virtually alone in holding that no millionaire should pay less than 30% of his income in taxes.

Of course all this sounds very quaint, if not somewhat amazing, to the hard-pressed business sector here at home.

They would love to pay the high-end taxes Obama proposes and doubtless wished they could sound off, in doubtless more decorous terms, like their US counterparts have railed against their president. For every boardroom exile such as Russell Loubser who speaks out, dozens retain their seats at the table, nod in silent agreement and keep their heads down and hope for the best. For all its costs and imperfections, the confidence to speak out remains an American virtue we should consider importing.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

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