Thursday, October 11, 2012

'The Rumble 2012': The Other Presidential Debate.

A good and fun way to learn about American politics and the ideological cleavage between Republicans and Democrats, but also between Europeans and Americans is to watch last week-end's debate between Bill O'Reilly, and Jon Stewart, two major influential figures of cable television.

"The Rumble in the Air-conditioned Auditorium" was not only a fun joust, √©as the name suggests, it was also an exchange of substance. At the core of the political divide is the role of government, which happens to be a central difference between France and the United States, and also more generally between Europeans and Americans. 
 (A reminder to our European audience: 'government' in the United states is usually understood loosely and often includes local forms of government, and it is not just L'Etat). 

The right (O'Reilly) thinks for instance that government spending should go mostly to military and national defense, whereas the left (Stewart) thinks it should, for instance also go to health care and social programs. No wonder why Europeans tend to feel closer to the Democrats, especially if you consider the healthcare question which probably holds the greater consensus across the board in Western Europe. 

O'Reilly uses two main arguments traditionally held by American conservatives:

the first is the 'efficiency argument': that government is bad at running most things, (except for defense and the military) and the private sector (like private insurances) will do a better job at it, thanks to competition. 

The problem with this argument is that health is not a mere product you can do without. A system based on profit implies that only those who are profitable will be covered. If, as O'Reilly suggests, government should impose mandates on not being able to deny people coverage (which most conservatives do not agree to do), then premiums and cost will soar even more. 
 Despite O'Reilly's poor experience with the National Healthcare system in Britain, statistics show that  countries with socialized medicine in Europe do better than the United States, both in terms of cost and  life expectancy (see figures here). (It would be nice if O'Reilly confronted his own personal experience to larger numbers so he'd get a real picture of the whole situation). 
More importantly, even conservatives in Britain support socialized medicine which shows that the system must not be so bad after all. 

The mainstream of the British Conservative party supports a model in which health and other services are funded by taxation, even if they inveigh against “dependency culture” and bemoan inefficiences and unfairnesses.  (Time)
And in case, things might not be clear enough, here's what Conservative Prime Minister Cameron said:

This is the party of the NHS [Britain's free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service] and that’s the way it’s going to stay,” (Time)

-the second argument is 'the moral argument': government spending creates an entitlement nation and encourages laziness.
This may ring true when you look at Western Europeans (and the French in particular have developed a great sense of being entitled to certain rights, as you can see in their many demonstrations). But, as Jon Stewart pointed out, the United States may very well be an entitlement nation in its own way:
"We are a people that went to another country, saw other people on it and said 'Yeah, we want that'". 
And of course, this even truer when you think of Social Security,  Medicare or the bailout of Wall Street during the recent financial crash.
(I would ad that the way U.S. foreign policy has been conducted in the Latin America or in the Middle East for instance furthers this impression outside the United States that Americans have a strong sense of entitlement.).
The best counter-argument came from Stewart when he said: 
Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not go hungry, you’re a moocher?
No wonder this got him the biggest applause of the evening. 

What is interesting is that while most Americans seem in agreement with the conservatives' rhetoric of "less government "and "less taxation" in principle, it becomes another story when it takes a concrete form. I have always been bewildered by people who are against government and yet want to benefit from Medicare, but the contradiction seems to escape them.
One person's right, is another person's entitlement, I suppose. 
It would be nice though if the Republicans remembered one of the great assets of the American character: pragmatism. Look at what works and do it. The Darwinian principle of 'survival of the fittest' on which competition is based is fine when it comes to your smart phone or cable TV but  not so much when it comes to life and death. We are not wild animals. 

And if you start opening up to what happens in the rest of the world, you'll see this is an area where the United States can learn from other countries. It takes a bit of humility and a slight bent to American Exceptionalism but it is worth it. 

Jon Stewart is right: not only is O'Reilly"completely full of shit", but that he is even "the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” an “alternate universe” in which history’s greatest villain is Bill Moyers and Big Bird the biggest moocher of all. 

That being said, I must say that, even though I disagree with just about anything Bill O'Reilly may say, I have a growing respect for him for at least debating with Jon Stewart and engaging him, which he has done repeatedly in the last few years. It is good to see that two people on two sides of the ideological spectrum can hold a (more or less) normal conversation. 

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