Unfinished Business

American campaigns are always about the size and role of government; it’s been this way since the days of Publius and The Federal Farmer. But campaigns often ignore topics the parties believe the populace might find unpleasant, especially if there is no benefit to either party in shining a light on the difficulties. So here are a few items that pose challenges to the nation, though you might not know it from the campaign.

First, a real discussion about the economy and not the platitudes of the campaign. I’ve been very taken by Rogoff and Reinhart’s This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Follies, and what it tells us about speculation, regulation, bubbles,the long lasting effects of financial crises (not ‘elect me and I’ll have this thing fixed before breakfast’) and debt. Of course we think there are serious people working on such issues but to listen to their public pronouncements — well, must not upset the populace with the hard truths. One truth, discussed by Prof. Simon Johnson at IdeasBoston, is that we need to start a long term program to reduce the national debt and that will take some form of revenue from the middle class. The Democrats have taken to mocking Mitt Romney’s airy plans as violating simple principles of arithmetic but their arithmetic ability is open to question as well.

As for a new day dawning in the relationship of Washington to our predator financial institutions, here is Prof. Johnson from a Sunday New York Times article on Elizabeth Warren: “Not putting her on banking would make the Democratic Party look like a creature of Wall Street, which, by the way, it is,” Professor Johnson said. “But they don’t like to be too explicit about it.”

Remember global warming? If you were following the campaign you weren’t too focused on it, until Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast. Whether or not that particular weather event is a consequence of global warming isn’t the point; it is that we have been ignoring the issue and every day we lose in our response harms us, our kids and planet. Elizabeth Warren raised a good point in the first debate and we should be grateful that Sen. James Inhofe won’t be chairing  the Senate committee that has environmental jurisdiction. But President Obama has to wake up the nation on this threat.

A couple of days before the election a Washington Post opinion piece caught my eye, arguing that the nation is far more safe now than it has been in many years in terms of external threats. Washington doesn’t like to talk about such things, the author posits, because if someone goes ahead and points this out and a threat does manifest itself soon thereafter (like a terrorist attack) then the pronouncing party will be denounced as soft on defense and ostracized from the national security debate. Yet if we can’t acknowledge our relative safety then we can’t prepare ourselves for real threats. Oh and think of the budgetary implications. Halliburton does.

In a piece called “Debating the American Dream” for CommonWealth Magazine, I encouraged the senate candidates to take on some obstacles that have arisen to our citizens. For example, though worker productivity grew in Massachusetts’s in the first decade of this century, wages did not. Unemployment and underemployment is having an outsized effect on young people with possible consequences for family formation, savings, the housing market, etc. While we treasure the Horatio Alger story in this country, social mobility here lags many other countries across the wold including other western industrialized nations. Hear anything about that during the campaign?

The president is our educator-in-chief. One thing politicians like to say is that this nation has faced bigger challenges and overcome then. That is true. But we first need an honest discussion about the true nature of those challenges. The campaign did not do that but President Obama must.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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