I played the end of Fallout 3 last night.  For those of you who haven’t played it, it’s a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future in Washington D.C.  Awesome setting, absolutely dreadful writing.  There is exactly one well-written character in the game, and many of his lines are just quotes from actual U.S. Presidents.

The game has multiple endings, and the one I played last night has a massive, giant, gaping plot-hole in it.  I won’t give it away–it would take forever to explain anyway–but in brief, the player is forbidden from making the most logical choice simply because the game writers wanted to force a choice on the player.  There’s a perfectly logical ending that’s best for everyone, but the game won’t let you pick it. (In fairness, they did subsequently make an add-on that will let you choose this option, but  I don’t have it.)

I’ve talked in the past on here about good and bad video game writing.  I could talk about the writing in F3 is an example of the latter, and contrast with the brilliantly constructed plot in its sequel, Fallout: New VegasBut we all have bigger things to worry about, what with the election coming up.  And it is along those lines that forced choices in Washington D.C. set me thinking.

There are exactly two real choices for President this election, as there in almost all other elections of late.  Yes, there are third-party candidates, but they cannot win, and unlike Ross Perot in ’92, are unlikely to even attract enough votes to make the real candidates take notice.  Thus, as I have written before, the question is not “is this the best person for the job?”, but, “is this person better than this other person for the job?”

I support President Obama.  I think he is clearly better than Romney.  But is he the best person for the job?  I don’t know.  Theoretically, of course, the primary system would produce the two best people for the job, but an incumbent President who faces a primary challenge is virtually sure to lose, and so no Democrat had any reason to challenge Obama this time around.  And Mitt Romney, for his part, put on an absolute clinic on how to game the American electoral system.  He discovered that he could simply say one thing in the primaries, and the opposite in the general campaign, and face no real consequences for it.  His campaign even told everyone they were going to do that, and it still worked.

It is well-known that some voters blindly give their unwavering support to one party or the other, but the bigger issue is that even when people attempt to escape from the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats, they still allow the parties to dictate the terms on which political decisions are made. That’s why the word “centrist” annoys me so much; it still permits the parties to set the agenda, from which the “centrists” only mix and match their  selections.

I sometimes think it would be better if the system worked as follows: the politicians were all effectively independents most of the time, but during election season could choose to align themselves with some party if they felt so inclined.  In other words, the candidate would nominate the party, rather than the party nominating the candidate who has best worked his way up in the party.  (If you think about it, why should low-ranking local officials need to have a party affiliation?) But maybe this has already been done and failed.  And it does have its drawbacks–most notably, there’s still the question of how to keep the number of candidates manageable.  Elections would all end in ties if every adult were easily able to run.  So, how do you decide who is qualified to be a national candidate without involving the party system?

Well, as I said, I think Obama is the better candidate, no question.  I don’t even really understand why so many Republicans are eager to vote for Romney, as he is apparently willing to throw away their platform to win a debate.  I don’t  actually know what he plans to do, though the best guess I can make is cutting spending and causing another recession.  So, by default, I have to support Obama for President.

“And I am right,

And you are right

          And all is right as right can be!”

–lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy.

Speaking of international affairs, the foreign policy speech the other night was surreal.  I say “speech” because it was in no way a “debate”.  Romney just echoed Obama.  Sort of pointless, really.  They might have at least had the decency to say beforehand “hey, we have no major disagreements on this, so let’s debate something else”.

Barry Goldwater famously derided “me-too” Republicans, meaning Republicans who went along with the Democrats with only slight deviations.  Mitt Romney has taken “me-too” Republicanism to an absurd extreme–at least in his words, if not in his deeds.  Either he is lying to the country in general about what his plans are, or else he is lying to the Republicans about being one of them.  I think there was a famous quote from some old politician about “fooling all of the people all of the time“.  Romney should check that out.

One problem with foreign policy debates is that foreign policy more than other matters requires secrecy.  You can’t go blabbing your plans all over the place, or rival nations and other entities will find out what you’re up to and react accordingly.  So, all they can really do is spout platitudes. “Peace is good”, “America must be strong” and so on. Still, spouting platitudes is what politicians excel at.

Obama’s line about horses and bayonets was a good one, but I sometimes think he’s over-thinking things.  While I agree that some of the military spending Romney is proposing is wasteful, it might be the easiest way of providing the economy with the Keynesian stimulus it needs, since few Republicans will vote against it.  It would be better to spend it on schools and such, but if the political landscape makes that impossible, there’s not much to be done.

I still think Obama is going to win this election, but there’s no question it’s been much closer than I ever expected.

Now then, as I was saying, charisma is what wins Presidential elections.  The first debate proved this point quite conclusively; as Mitt Romney won it in the opinion of almost everyone simply because he seemed more energetic than the President did.  Naturally, I was shocked that Obama did so poorly, but nonetheless the general principle that charisma wins elections was upheld.

Obama returned to form, though, in the second debate and I think won it despite Romney’s best efforts to weird him out by stealing his material.  Obama is more likeable than Romney in general; so I really cannot think what happened in the first debate.  I still believe that Obama will win because of his charm, and leave the awkward, sometimes nervous looking former Governor wondering what happened.

Of course, in the matter of what they proposed to do things were very different.  Mitt Romney threw almost all conservative ideas out, and simply mimicked Obama to a great extent.  He talked about how rich people  do not need help; the middle class does, and spoke fondly of the need for government regulations.  In the second debate, he came out in favor of affirmative action, albeit awkwardly.  In the upcoming foreign policy debate, he will probably quote Howard Zinn approvingly.

Romney won the first debate, but in so doing he essentially promised to be super moderate–to out-Obama Obama, as it were.  Maybe Romney will just say whatever he thinks is likely to be popular at any given moment.  Or maybe there is a conscious and deliberate plan whereby Romney talks like the consummate “centrist” and then governs like a supply-side Republican.  But either way, the Etch-A-Sketch strategy worked like a charm.

In a way, I think these debates have been the culmination of what I talked about in this post.  There are two Rockefeller Republicans in these debates; one of them simply happens to be a Democrat.  There are differences in their personal style, in their manner, and in degrees of Rockefeller Republicanism, but that is what they both are campaigning as.

Obama is (usually) more charismatic, and so he gets the advantage among swing voters.  Of the remaining votes, I assume that most will be cast based on party loyalty.  The Democrats will vote for Obama and hope he will adhere more closely to their platform, even though he will still face opposition in Congress.  The Republicans will vote Romney because they want Obama out, and will vote automatically for the GOP candidate whoever he happens to be.

It bears repeating that Romney is probably not actually a Rockefeller Republican; he just plays one on TV.  He played a much more socially conservative kind of Republican in the primaries, and then relied on the public’s short attention span to affect his metamorphosis.   Most likely, he is a George W. Bush Republican: almost all of his policies suggest that he supports the same tax cuts and military interventionism that the last Republican did.  But saying that won’t win him any allies.

I think that Obama, meanwhile, would like to be more liberal on government spending, raising taxes, and so on.  He probably wants to be an FDR Democrat on the economy, but the political terrain is such that he can’t find a way to do that.  For one thing, I think he is more interested in achieving bipartisanship than FDR was.

Ultimately, I think Obama wins this on personal appeal.  Romney, outside of one fluky debate, seems rather arrogant and condescending.  Even in the debate he “won”, he seemed arrogant with the way he talked over the moderator.

Intriguing title, huh?  I can’t take full credit for it though, it was inspired by Michael Tomasky’s piece in The Daily Beast criticizing Obama’s DNC speech:

This was the rhetorical equivalent, forgive the football metaphor, of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose.

Well, teams that are competent can usually manage to do that.  It’s only teams with glaring weaknesses that fail at it. If you can’t run out the clock when you’re ahead, it means you’re not very good.  Tomasky continues:

 Unlike Clinton, Obama didn’t even mention [Medicaid] by name. Social Security and Medicare, yes, although even with those, he uttered mere vague sentences. But his not even mentioning Medicaid stunned me. Third down and 12, let’s run it up the middle, boys, take no chances.

Hey, Tomasky, teams that throw deep with a late lead tend to end up like this.  So maybe Obama knows what he’s doing.  Yes, I liked Clinton’s speech a lot too.  But there was no point in Obama repeating what Clinton had already said.  There was enough repetition in the convention speeches as it was.

As of right now, Obama leads Romney 48-45 in the Gallup poll.  To continue the football analogy, with a three point lead late in the game, he’d be crazy to try anything risky.

 

People are complaining about it, but I really enjoyed former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s DNC speech.  Why, if the politicians aren’t excited about what they’re doing, how can they expect the voters to be?  The only problem I have with her speech is that the enthusiasm it engendered will be long forgotten come election day.  She should have given it in early November.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s speech seems to have gotten a mixed reception.  I think his reputation as a good speaker is starting to work against him; he is expected to give a brilliant address every time he speaks.  Whereas Romney just has to prove he has actual human emotions for people to feel like he gave a good speech.

Ultimately, I really don’t think the conventions changed anything.  All anyone will remember from either of them will be Clint Eastwood, and he isn’t even running.

For the past week, all any one is taking about is Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek article on the case against re-electing President Obama.  There has been a lot of arguing between Ferguson and many high-profile bloggers about various points in the article which are either false or misleading.  There is also the revelation that Newsweek does not actually fact-check their articles.  I think that aspect of it has been pretty well hashed-over, so I’m not going to spend much time on it.

What I want to address is why Ferguson thinks Romney would be any better.  Because, the question is not “is Obama the best candidate for the Presidency,” but  “is he better than Romney?”  Ferguson’s reasons for favoring Romney seem to rest largely on the fact that his V.P. is Paul Ryan.  Big deal.  The Vice-Presidency is practically worthless except in the hands of somebody with vast experience with how Washington works and tons of connections within the political arena.  But I don’t think Romney wants to market Ryan as “the next Dick Cheney”.

Then, of course, there is the problem that Ryan is not really all he’s cracked up to be, as documented by Ferguson’s arch-nemesis, Paul Krugman.  I’ll address that in a minute but first let’s allow, for the sake of argument, that Paul Ryan is, as Ferguson writes “truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.”  He’s still just the Vice-President.  Arguably, he could do more to implement his budget schemes in his current position as Congressman than as Romney’s back-up.

But here is where things get problematic:  Ferguson’s argument is that the economy has sucked under Obama.  That’s true.  There’s no two ways about it, as they say.  And while that’s not completely or even mostly Obama’s fault, his administration has definitely made some mistakes on that front.

So, is the Romney/Ryan ticket likely to do a better job or a worse job?

Ferguson describes Ryan’s plan, kind of assuming that his plan is what Romney will pursue:

Replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth.

“Growth”, eh? Well, to get growth, you need a multiplier effectThe estimated values for multipliers on tax cuts range from 1.29 to 0.27, according to Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody’s, in a study cited by Wikipedia. The same study estimated the multipliers for government spending increases ranged from 1.73 to 1.36.  These are the different effects a change in tax cuts or spending have on growth of domestic output. (GDP)

If you notice, the number 1.36 is greater than the number 1.29.  That means that if you multiply the same number by both, you get a greater answer from the number that’s greater.  The spending increase number is greater than the tax cut number.  I realize this is difficult to understand.  Apparently, a Harvard professor and the Republican candidate for Vice-President can’t follow it.

Alright, so I’m being a sarcastic jerk.  There is an alternative explanation: that everything we thought we knew about basic macro-economics is wrong, in which case all bets are off.  We may as well just go back to the barter system.  Neoclassical synthesis?  No thank you!  The Republicans seem beholden to a school of thought which, rather than having a macro-economic model and a micro-economic model, simply extrapolates the principles of classical micro to describe the macro.

Remember what Ferguson wrote, about “supply-side life”?  Well, that’s a swell plan if you’re facing a supply side recession, as we were in the 1970s.  But we’re not facing that now.  We’re facing a demand-side recession.  How do I know this?  Because there has been a decrease in GDP and low inflation–almost deflation.  If it were a supply-side issue, there would have been a decrease in GDP and a rise in the price level–aka “stagflation“.  Meaning, the supply-side stuff advocated by Ronald Reagan that worked to an extent in the early ’80s won’t work now.

(Not that I suppose you care, but here is a graph of what the present problem is.  It’s lousy quality, and I just sketched it without using any numbers or anything, but I couldn’t find any public domain graphs of an Aggregate Demand decrease online.)

The Recession: Aggregate Demand decreases, causing decrease in price level and GDP

So, Paul Ryan–and, Ferguson would have us presume, Romney–are bringing supply to a demand fight.  Their plan is to cut taxes and reduce spending, when what they should be doing is increasing spending and leaving taxes alone until the economy has recovered, at which point they could reduce spending and raise taxes to start dealing with the debt problem.

That is why, even though Obama has messed up his handling of the economy, it would not be smart to vote him out because of it.  His replacements would be even worse.

The New York Times has a bizarre fluff article about Paul Ryan’s fashion sense.  This isn’t really my area of expertise–he wears dark suits, like every other male politician–but the article does raise a lot of interesting questions about attractiveness and its relevance to politics.

I think that politicians in general are better looking now than they were before the advent of television and high-quality photographs.  You can’t go around looking like  Martin Van Buren and expect to be President anymore.

Martin Van Buren (Image via Wikipedia.)

Admittedly, not everyone in politics nowadays is pin-up material.  Actually, even people like Ryan, Obama, Palin and all the other supposedly attractive pols are just slightly above-average-looking people.  None of them would turn heads on the street.  But by the standards of the political arena, they look like movie stars.  I suspect this is because to be a major figure in politics, you usually have to be fairly old and spend a lot of time sitting around indoors.  This lifestyle isn’t conducive to getting on People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” list.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two consecutive Republican Vice-Presidential nominees have been relatively young and physically fit people.  They know how much looks matter in politics.  The NYT article referenced above makes it sound like only the Republicans do this, however.  Not true.  Why, the Democrats were perhaps the first beneficiaries of the attractiveness bias, in that it provided JFK the critical edge he needed in a close race against the haggard-looking Richard Nixon.

It’s not the same thing as the “charisma” that I write about so much–both Romney and Ryan are good-looking, but not at all charismatic–but it’s related.  And if you can’t get a charismatic politician to run for your side, getting a nice-looking one is probably the next best thing.

It’s been said that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”.  Well, now it’s coming to be Hollywood for slightly above-average looking people.  Eventually, political strategists will decide the best thing to do is put forth incredibly telegenic puppet candidates, and having the real nitty-gritty work of running the country done behind the scenes by people who look like Karl Rove or James Carville.  Or maybe that’s already going on.

A new poll has come out showing that only 49% of Americans think President Obama is Christian.  17% think he’s Muslim.  James Rainey writes:

The lingering questions about Obama’s faith likely come from people of two mind-sets. One is those who have an intense dislike of the president and find confirmation of all their fears in a fever swamp of conspiracy websites. Where a birth certificate is not accepted as proof of someone’s place of birth, forget about verifying something as intangible as a statement of faith.

The second factor driving up Obama’s “Muslim number” is doubtless the urge of some respondents to stick it in the pollsters’ ear — to commit a small act of defiance by giving an answer the voter knows is untrue. When the interloper in the Oval Office is deeply loathed, why credit him with anything, least that he is a Christian?

Rainey focuses his attention largely on 17% who think he is Muslim.  Probably this is because it really is incredible that anyone could honestly believe he is a devout Muslim, as so many of his actions are inconsistent with that faith.

What I wonder about is the people who answered “don’t know” or “other” in the poll.  Is there also a conspiracy theory that Obama is secretly Buddhist?  Actually, most of the people I’ve talked to who doubt Obama on this suspect that he’s an atheist, not a Muslim.  Not sure why those people would answer “don’t know”, though.

As for the results on Romney’s religion, I was surprised how many didn’t know it.  It’s one of the most notable facts about an otherwise fairly dull politician.

World War I propaganda poster depicting Britannia and Uncle Sam. Image via Wikipedia.

An anonymous Romney adviser has allegedly told the Daily Telegraph that Romney would improve relations with Britain because:

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.

What a lot of people are talking about is the racial angle (pardon the pun) of this alleged quote.  One thing to keep in mind is that Obama is in fact partly English on the side of his mother, Ann Dunham.  (Dunham is an English name, for one thing.) But people are thinking this is a not-too-veiled racial attack.  I’d have to say I don’t what else the point of such quote could be, although it should be noted that the Romney campaign is saying this quote is inaccurate.  Well, if so, they should sue the Telegraph for libel.  If they don’t, it might seem like their guy actually said that, and they’re lying to cover it up.

What I really want to talk about, though, is this “special relationship” stuff.  I remember there was a big dust-up back in 2009 about the “special  relationship”, when Obama gave then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of DVDs as a gift.  The Prime Minister had given him a pen-holder made from the HMS Gannet.  This upset a lot of people, but from what I can tell, Brown was treated like this by virtually everyone.  He had that anti-charismatic thing (a lot like Al Gore) that made people dislike him instinctively.  So I don’t think this means Obama doesn’t like Britain.

In practice, the “special relationship” seems to work like this: the British give us their culture–actors and actresses, authors, musicians–and we give them help whenever there’s a world war.  It’s not a bad system, all told.

Seriously, though: the “special relationship” seems to have been heavily emphasized by Winston Churchill, presumably for the purpose of convincing the U.S. to intervene in World War II.  And certainly, since America was founded people who had been British, there’s no doubt the two countries have a lot in common.  However, I don’t know that it is really that “special”.  Diplomatic relationships are usually forged and dismantled based on financial or military interests, not sentimentality.  If–Heaven forbid!–the United States’ relationship with Britain deteriorated, we would no doubt start saying “well, the whole country was founded because of a war with them, after all.”

That’s really the point: a lot of this is contrived stuff for people to argue about that ultimately doesn’t mean very much.  Example:  Romney says he’ll put a bust of Winston Churchill back in the Oval Office if elected.  Big deal.  I admire Churchill, but that really doesn’t matter very much in the scheme of things.  This is all a lot of pointless fighting over symbolism, as far as I’m concerned.

James Madison probably couldn’t win the Presidency today. He was only 5 ft 4. (Image via Wikipedia)

Liberal friends of mine sometimes wonder how I can be so optimistic about Obama’s chances in the election, and yet be so cynical about politics in general.  They wondered the same thing in 2008.

Basically, I support Obama, but I think he wins for the wrong reasons.  It’s not his fault, though.  I don’t think he can do anything about it, even if he wanted to.  It’s mostly due to the charisma thing that I talk about so much, rather than his actual policies, that Obama enjoys so much success.  There are always polls coming out showing more people just “like” Obama as a person than support all his policies.

It’s not just charisma–though-mostly–but all kinds of superficial factors.  Imagine if Obama had all the same policies, and said all the same stuff, but instead were a short, bald, pot-bellied, bespectacled man with a high-pitched, nasal voice.  I doubt he would have been elected Senator.  People don’t want to support a guy like that, even if he is totally right about things.  This is especially true since the advent of television.

Presidential elections aren’t really determined by policy, or ideology, or anything like that.  They are determined by who has the more “likeable” candidate.  The Democrats happen to have him at the moment, but the Republicans have had him in the past.

On paper, actually, Mitt Romney is a pretty good candidate for meeting the superficial requirements.  He’s good-looking for a man his age–“distinguished” I think is the term–and he looks fairly tall.  Decent speaking voice.  His only flaw, from a superficial standpoint, is his total inability to interact normally with people.  Perhaps he needs a holographic avatar to make it easier.

So, I’m quite cynical about politics, but I’m fortunate in that right now the political system seems to favor the candidate who supports the same policies I do.  In the long run, however, I think this is not the ideal way to pick a President.