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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Shibboleths of American Politics....



The Wikipedia (the only dictionary and encyclopedia in vogue these days!!) defines a shibboleths thus:
"A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/)[2] is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people. It also refers to features of language, and particularly to a word or phrase whose pronunciation identifies a speaker as belonging to a particular group."

Like so many other Indians, I have been watching the run-up to the Presidential elections in the United States, and it is fascinating to look at it, especially from the viewpoint of an outsider. Nikita Khrushchev (as did, indeed, the entire Communist movement) had a simple view about this whole thing, when asked whether, the debates, the advertisements, the primaries, the caucuses did not really prove that the USA is the most democratic country in the world, with the fairest election processes: Khrushchev claimed that well, the whole discourse was conducted within some narrow doctrinal parameters, which were never questioned by either of the candidates, and that what looked to everybody like two alternate approaches was just the sparring between two elites for control of the state. In other words, the US system did not allow truly divergent or new views to emerge.

I rejected the Communist/Soviet view of the US elections a quarter century ago, but now, as I grow older, I am struck by the correctness of that description.

Each Party, and its candidate have some views, which is neither questioned by their own people, or even by their opponents. Even more, both parties have identical views on these topics, even if nobody else outside the US accept it.

Some examples:

1) Both parties spar over how close Iran is, to building a nuclear weapon, and how to put an end to it. No one, not a politician, not a single TV/Internet columnist even asks, do we have a right to stop the programme, even Iran is really building one? In the rest of the world, or atleast the developing world, in India or Iran, the debate would be larger, and  the first question that would be asked, would be, what right do countries which themselves have had atomic weapons for 60 years, to stop others? Not only that, but also, if Israel can have weapons, why not their opponents? Like Khrushchev predicted, the debate never addresses the larger issues of disarmament or even-handedness in dealings in the Middle-east. It is a shibboleth: only some countries can be allowed nuclear weapons.

2) Not in a single debate or in any video clipping or news article have I come across a figure for what percent of GDP the US fiscal deficit is. In any other part of the world, countries would be judged on their deficit using this tool, as also whether they are falling into a debt trap because of excessive borrowing. The most basic of economic textbooks always make this distinction: borrowing may be bad for an individual, but not necessarily so for nations. Since a large part of the US electorate thinks  that government borrowing is "morally" wrong, this is another shibboleth that cannot be demolished. Unlike what both parties think, in the rest of the world, the view is simple: you can neither tax your way out of a depression, nor cut spending: it will only make a recession worse. A country's borrowing can be said to wrong, in economic terms, only if the debt servicing takes up a unacceptably large portion of its expenditure. I am yet to come across figures indicating that such a scenario has come about, and yet, this is a shibboleth, which neither parties question: the deficit is bad, and we have to have "balanced' budgets...

3) 'Shipping" jobs out: the reason the standard of living in the USA is so high is because of free trade, which has led to cheap goods from across the world landing up in the US,  at prices which are low because of  the cheap labor costs abroad. If Americans would carry out manufacturing at home, sure, unemployment would go down, but then the costs would rise, and the US would become a high-cost economy, like the European Union, and unable to compete in export markets across the world, like the Europeans. It would probably make more economic sense to just continue to import workers, and goods, and have a high standard of living, and pay out unemployment allowances, than have a inflationary, uncompetitive economy, but, again, this is a shibboleth, and China and India are the bad boys....

And a thousand other shibboleths, on abortion, on foriegn policy, on taxes, on the military,...any of which would be debated, if only by a fringe party in the Westminster-style democracies, but not here, in the world's 'greatest democracy"....

And, funnily enough, the last shibboleth: that the presidential system, with the executive being closely tied to legislative sanction, which has deadlocked the US in a deadly class warfare, is the best...in any other country, overhauling a system put in place 230 years ago would have been an election issue....not here, though!! In other words, whether the Republicans win or the Democrats do, it will have little effect, as the other party would ensure that none of their agenda is implemented, by controlling either the House of Representatives or the Senate, or both.

Sitting in the sunny and benign autum of Delhi, reading both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post on my Ipad, and watching the campaign on Fox and CNN,  I feel as though I  am watching gold-fish in a bowl, interminably circling each other, unaware of the large world outside their bowl....fascinating....America has perfected the art of navel-gazing!!!

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