The first two U.S. presidential debates have been painful to watch. Both candidates are running on platforms constructed from verbal hallucinations about the nation’s past, present, and future. And the American people are being asked to choose between those hallucinations in order to select the best available scapegoat for the next four years of national economic decline. The race is burning up billions of dollars in advertising money, yet few citizens seem genuinely excited about either candidate, with households evidently viewing the proceedings as a prime-time ritual combat in which it is the winner, rather than the loser, who will ultimately receive the fatal thumbs-down.
Most of the delusions and fantasies that pervade the debates can be grouped into three baskets:
Energy. In the second debate, a questioner from the audience asked president Obama if there is something the latter can do to lower gasoline prices. The ensuing fiction-laced candidate dialogue featured assertions like the following:
· America has a century’s worth of cheap natural gas. (It doesn’t, and production levels will probably begin declining within the next couple of years.)
· Oil drilling in North Dakota will soon free the U.S. of the need to import oil. (It won’t, and production there will similarly peak and start to wane in the next 2-5 years.)
· The president of the United States should be held accountable for high gasoline prices. (In fact, aside from temporary gestures like opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, there’s almost nothing a president can do to reduce gas prices, which mostly track the global price of crude oil.)
The reality is that America faces profound energy challenges. The “Beverly Hillbillies” era of cheap oil is over, and with it the decades-long spate of economic expansion that both candidates appear to believe is the birthright of all citizens. Oil production costs have skyrocketed in recent years, and out of desperation drilling companies are using costly techniques like hydrofracturing to wring crude from low-grade reservoirs. The energy world portrayed in the debates—in which coal is “clean” and oil and gas companies will lead the U.S. to a new era of energy abundance if only they are unleashed or regulated properly—is a stage set carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry PR professionals and political consultants. Once viewers have dutifully mistaken this painted scenery for reality, it’s the actors’ job to raise the audience’s adrenaline levels with taunts and sneers. Meanwhile, outside the theater, the real world is hurtling toward an energy supply crisis for which no one is being prepared, and whose impact will not be blunted by sensible policy.
Summon the scapegoat.
The economy. Why hasn’t the American economy recovered? Why are so many people still unemployed? What policies will re-start the nation’s engines of growth? Anyone who watched either debate will know that these questions provoked lengthy and heated exchanges between Obama and Romney, precisely because they are the matters of greatest concert to voters. Probably only a few viewers bothered to examine the assumptions on which both candidates appear to agree: that ongoing economic stagnation is a temporary glitch that can be fixed, and that growth is normal and can continue perpetually.
Here president Obama is fighting with one hand tied behind him. As long as he feeds the delusion that the economic crisis is a solvable problem, he must find some way to deflect the demanding query: “Well, then, why haven’t you fixed it?”
In reality, the crash of 2008 resulted from the bursting of history’s biggest credit bubble, together with the simultaneous rupture of the decades-old regime of cheap oil. These are not “problems” that can be “fixed.” The global economy will inevitably contract during the remainder of this century, and success will be measured by the ability of nations, communities, and households to adapt to the new reality of declining mobility, expensive energy, and scarce credit.
If Obama were to even begin explaining this situation to voters, he would immediately be tarred as a pessimist, even a doomster. The best he can do is to argue that it was a Republican who got us into this mess, so it would be a mistake to choose a Republican using similar policies to get us out. Both candidates conspire to mislead their audience as to the cause and nature of the crisis, and both stoke unrealistic expectations of recovery and growth once they are elected. Since recovery is not in the cards, that just means that whoever wins will reap the blame.
Who wants to be the scapegoat?
Climate change. In this case, delusion is a species of blindness. In the real world, impacts from global climate change are showing up faster than forecast in even the most “alarmist” scenarios published just a few years ago. Most of the U.S. is still suffering from a devastating drought that has already ruined billions of dollars’ worth of crops. Altogether, weather anomalies are increasing in frequency and severity—exactly as the climate models predict, only faster. The north polar ice cap is disappearing before our eyes. This is potentially a crisis of truly apocalyptic dimensions. Yet, during the debates, president Obama has offered only one brief mention of climate change while governor Romney has avoided the subject altogether.
At some point in the not-distant future—quite likely, during the next four years—the mushrooming impacts of climate change will rudely demolish the complacent edifice of denial that characterizes current political discourse. At that point, Americans will be asking questions like, “Why haven’t you done anything about this?” or, “Why is God punishing us?”
Send in the scapegoat.
Under the circumstances, picking a favorite in this race is a sucker’s game—even if one of the political parties is in some ways more delusional and opportunistic than the other, and even if one of the candidates seems more intelligent and public-spirited than his opponent. Choosing the better president won’t prevent further economic decline. Nor will blaming the scapegoat-in-chief offer any tangible relief when prosperity doesn’t return. The only way we can make things go better is to acknowledge reality and adapt to it. Since we’re not likely to get much help along those lines from our political leaders, it’s really up to us.