Opinion

The Great Debate

May the odds be ever in your favor

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written for Tomorrow Magazine, whose first issue comes out this month. The article is being republished with permission.

On May 20, 2011, John Delaney awoke 550 meters from the summit of Mount Everest. Delaney, who founded Intrade, a website for those who love to predict the future, had been trying to get to the top of the world for years. His company invited users to bet on the news: Customers would calculate probabilities, assess risk, make a wager. On Everest, Delaney was doing much the same.

This close to the summit, he was on an area of the mountain known as the death zone, where the atmosphere is about three times thinner than at sea level. Cerebral and pulmonary edemas—the leaking of fluid to the brain and heart—are increasingly likely at that altitude. Still, between 1921 and 2006, just 94 people died at this stage of the climb—above 8,000 meters, but before the summit. Altogether, Everest claimed 192 climbers’ lives in that 86-year span, 1.3 percent of those who attempted a climb. The odds that Delaney would succumb to the mountain were low.

Back in Ireland, three days earlier, his wife, Orla, had given birth to a premature baby, though only 6 percent of babies born in Ireland are premature. She named her Hope.

But Delaney was too far from Orla and too close to the summit to be notified. At 7:30 p.m., he set out from camp, 8,300 meters above sea level. According to forecasts, the temperature was -7 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds blew as fast as 40 miles an hour.

‘Energy independence’ is a farce

It can be hard to find areas of agreement between the presidential candidates on economic or domestic policy. Tuesday night’s debate, though, revealed one exception: energy policy. Alas, what it also revealed is that both President Obama and Governor Romney are making their policies based on a false premise, and they are pandering to Americans’ ignorance instead of telling them the truth.

The second question in the debate at Hofstra University came from audience member Phillip Tricolla, and was directed to Obama: “Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?” The premise that the Energy Department can lower gas prices is incorrect. But Obama chose not to confront Tricolla with the hard truth — that global economic forces have put gasoline prices on a long-term upwards trajectory, and that trajectory is beyond our government’s control.

“The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy,” said Obama, neglecting to answer the actual question. He went on to boast that domestic production of oil, coal, natural gas and clean energy has increased, while he has also raised fuel efficiency standards. “And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years,” said Obama. “Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling.”

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

First Gilded Age yielded to Progessives, can today’s?

 

C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry's for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator.

Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.

New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.

But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.

The GOP and voter anger

President Barack Obama’s lackluster, let’s-work-together performance in Wednesday night’s presidential debate stoked the fears of his liberal backers that Democrats simply won’t fight for them the way Republicans relentlessly battle for their wealthier, aging, corporate constituents.

After four years of Republican intransigence – even when Democrats have championed Republican ideas – the Democratic left insists that the White House hasn’t grasped that the 2012 campaign is not about policy. So far, Republicans are proving more adept at speaking, in both coded and direct terms, to Americans’ stark demographic and psychological divisions.

That Republican nominee Mitt Romney stood before the nation and all but disowned the tax-cut, Medicare, health policy and other GOP doctrines he had campaigned on for months is likely to matter little to his backers. The last three Republican presidents, as MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes pointed out, also campaigned on promises of economic growth, deficit reduction and tax relief – and all left behind a faltering economy and ballooned deficits. What they reliably delivered was tax cuts benefiting the wealthy.

It’s not the economy, stupid!

Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.

This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).

The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.

The ‘Hollywood Test’ for president

If you think of the current presidential campaign as a movie, the economy, by all rights, should have pre-empted most of the drama and handed the lead role to the lantern-jawed financier. The movie would have told of a decent man, so unflappable that he never broke a sweat, who tried his best but couldn’t work his will on the world and make things right. Into that void, walked Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who vowed that he had the experience and strength to turn things around.

Here was a simple plot pitting weakness against strength, a well-meaning amateur against a tough-minded business titan – essentially, the professor against the industrialist.

But that’s not the way it seems to be turning out. And the reason why may have as much to do with movies as politics. We love the idea of civic responsibility, of an informed citizenry boning up on the issues. But what we really do when we vote nowadays is cast our preference for the candidate who proposes the better movie – who seems to make the better protagonist in the national drama.

Tax reform does not guarantee growth

One of the few thin­gs that President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to agree on when they debate next week is the need for tax reform. Both candidates have backed streamlining America’s crazy-quilt tax code, and both have said that reforms could boost economic growth. Meanwhile, two key congressional committees held a rare bipartisan hearing last week – with lawmakers from both parties saying that tax reform is needed to rev up the economy.

Yet exactly how and why tax reform would spur growth is far from clear. Many proponents of reform, including Romney, want to lower tax rates while retaining the same level of revenue. But doing that means reducing major individual tax breaks that subsidize key sectors of the economy – including housing and healthcare. Long term, there are good arguments for whacking such subsidies, which tilt heavily in favor of affluent households and distort our economy. But curbing these freebies doesn’t offer a short-term economic fix and, in fact, could hurt growth.

Let’s start with the best-known big tax break – the mortgage interest deduction, which will cost the U.S. Treasury about $100 billion next year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Shrinking this loophole is a good idea in principle, since it primarily benefits more affluent households who have big mortgages and itemize their taxes, but it would be a blow to a housing sector that is still struggling. Smaller subsidies for home buyers would mean weaker sales and less new construction and would keep home values depressed – not an outcome that anyone wants to see right now. Among other things, such reform could be another severe blow to construction workers, who now have the highest unemployment rate of any group.

It’s time for the candidates to offer a strong education strategy

In the late 1960s, a Stanford University psychologist began conducting his now famous “marshmallow test” to understand “delayed gratification” – the ability to wait.

He would place a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single delicious marshmallow, promising to give him two marshmallows after a short wait. Some children succumbed to temptation, while others held out for the bigger reward. The children who could control their impulses went on to become better, higher-achieving students.

Why do we bring up this iconic experiment now, in the midst of the 2012 election season?

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