America: can it change?

The election of Barack Obama at the head of the most powerful country in the world has raised immense waves of hope not only in voters’ hearts but also in foreigners’, especially in Europe. If the personal qualities of the Democratic candidate and the effectiveness of his campaign should not be neglected, his task has nevertheless been made easier by the disastrous presidencies of his predecessor, George W. Bush (in case you’ve already forgotten him), who seriously impeded John McCain’s chances to get elected. At the same time, historic peaks of unpopularity at home and anti-Americanism abroad has made any change, or at least any appearance of change, welcome, as if it could hardly be worse. This impression is at the moment strengthened by the virulence of the press towards George W. Bush’s farewell and the outcome of his two terms. An attempt to remove from their readers’ memory certain controversial stances that so far, only the New York Times recanted? Trends are decidely extremely volatile and Fox News may for once be wiser than its competitors in saying that history will shed a different light on the "worst president ever". What newspapers ― and people ― are able to praise to the skies one day, they are able to hang it the day after: there is someone who should meditate this lesson.

However, the honeymoon hasn’t ended yet, and we can at least give Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. He seems to have goodwill ― in spite of early discouraging signals, notably the composition of his cabinet and his lack of commitment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ―, and the enthusiasm he has aroused among the Americans as well as in other countries represents a strong political capital which allows him to possibly do a lot. The question of whether he will does not solely depend on him though. To some extent, the history of the United States has been marked by deep continuities, as the French historian Pierre Melandri recalled us in his recent publication, and even figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, who are often compared with the American new president (rightly or wrongly), soon had to yield before the realities of power. Besides the international context or the interests of big business, another constraint less obvious but not less influential is quite simply citizens’ aspirations. One may argue it is legitimate that a democratically elected government tries to fulfil them, because this is precisely what voters want. Should it be done however at any price or worse, at the expense of moral values, future generations or the rest of the world ? And if ballot boxes are the ultimate source of legitimacy, what to think about Hamas (not to put on the table darker parts of human history) ? This article will deal with two aspects of the American way of thinking and living : ethical and economic. The goal is to demonstrate that the different storms the United States have been crossing over the past years have not only been caused by idiot/dishonest policymakers (cross out the statement that does not apply) but also, partly, by citizens themselves, either because of their active support or their implied consent. Where a government is the one “of the people, by the people, for the people”, people can’t altogether escape liability for what’s going on. No democracy can work properly without a certain public-spirited sense, and this goes far beyond waving flags and going to the polls from time to time.

Absolute security: a grand (and expensive) delusion

Barack Obama stated he will close Guantanamo detention camp as soon as possible, a symbolic move largely greeted by European countries and for which they promised to help. The American public opinion, however, seems to be much less convinced by the necessity of the measure. Should we deduce from it that many respondants are pro-torture? Definitely no, as illustrates a relative high rate of undecided. What kind of stance then do they hold regarding these illegal practices? For this purpose, it may be interesting to make a detour by one of the most popular TV series in the United States: 24. To summarize briefly the plot, a government agent must, season after season, thwart various terrorist actions, resorting if necessary to very arguable interrogation techniques. The comparison with real life has become so obvious that some scholars have started to pay attention to the series and to theorize the so-called “Jack Bauer syndrome”, named after the fictional country’s saviour. According to it, torture is acceptable if it permits to save lives of innocent people ― any parallel drawn with the just war doctrine and its applications would be, of course, unintentional. The calculation looks rational. After all, a terrorist is evil and doesn’t play by our rules, therefore why should respect his human rights? And if the sacrifice of one guilty person can save many innocents, isn’t it worthy? A further analysis proves this is a pure sophism, counter-productive from a utilitarian point of view and condemnable from a moral one.

Confessions pulled out by pressure (not to talk about torture) are most of the time not reliable, and we have many criminal cases that show it. Considering the risks of questioning someone who ignores the answer, the cost-benefit balance tips differently. Moreover, putting aside an individual’s rights “for the good of the community” is somehow tantamount to denying him his humanity. How then to advocate the universal character of human rights if we don’t even apply them to everyone? The scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been widely used as pretexts by those who contest their universality, whereas the real reason has been more prosaically the reluctance to respect them. Another issue is the moral leadership claimed by the “benevolent empire”. Doesn’t using “the enemy’s methods” make the United States descend to the level of those they despise? Since Iraq War partisans didn’t refrain from comparing it to World War II, one could look at another aspect of this conflict to ask how the victory would have been perceived if the Western Allies had given up democracy to defeat fascism. Would have it been a victory at all?

The fact is the current decline in matter of human rights does not only concern Iraqis or Afghans. In addition of tolerating the recourse to barbarian practices, the Americans seem to have accepted to relinquish their own rights for the sake of the “war on terrorism”. From the PATRIOT Act to paranoid airline regulations, one can reasonably wonder about the proportionality of these provisions between the risks they are supposed to protect from and the violation of basic civil rights they involve, such as privacy. What was formerly an exception has become an established norm, and debates as to frame or not torture (or, in other words, to create legal grounds for it) confirm the tendency. It is illusory to believe that zero risk is reachable, whatever technologies we possess, and it is not even sure that it is desirable, if such an objective requires the waiver of the American cardinal value: freedom. As one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, wrote, “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

An unsustainable economic model

Yet the Americans’ biggest expectations from the Obama administration aren’t about ethics but about economics. The least we can say is that he is starting with a bang through a $825bn stimulus package (the figure is actually increasing everyday), whose the quarter will consist of tax credits. Even though they mainly target the middle class, contrary to the previous fiscal measures, the question of their opportunity while the United States cumulate a heavy debt (around 70% of their GDP in 2008), a huge trade deficit and no prospect of improvement ― it was not much better before the crisis ― remains open. If beneficiaries use the money to increase their savings, then the effect on economic activity will be null, while if they decide to consume more, Chinese factories will be happy to fill their order books. Hence is there no solution? A survey of the causes of the current turmoil may provide useful keys to answer.

It is widely acknowledged that the crisis began with waves of subprime defaults, because housing prices stopped to rise and because mortgagors’ incomes were far too low to pay back loans. If bankers and financiers were very much under fire for their role in the financial turmoil, few voices have raised though to point out irresponsible political promises. What to think indeed about Bill Clinton’s will to make all the Americans become homeowners? At the time of globalization, mobility and flexibility, this is total nonsense. Transactional costs to sell a property and buy another one remain high, while changes in professional or personal life, more frequent than they used to be, may transform the loan repayment into an unbearable burden. Moreover, contrary to a commonplace belief, renting a house is not tantamount to throwing money out the window. Payments are usually higher than rents, and a tenant can if he so wishes save up or invest the difference elsewhere. Such a move of diversification shows all its interest when the reality knocks at the door to recall elementary wisdom : housing prices may, as any other price, fall. Instead of spending money on incentive mechanisms to push people to become homeowners, including those who can’t in definitive afford it, for the sole banks’ benefit, the government will be more inspired to act as a developer in order to avoid shortages on the housing market and subsequent irrational price skyrocketing.

Another issue connected with indebtedness is consumption. If borrowing money to invest is often necessary to smooth time lapses between receipts and expenditures, doing it to consume sounds much more doubtful. As consumption is barren, you must either renounce to a part of your future consumption to finance your current extra, either be sure that your income will increase enough to maintain a relatively constant level of consumption. Over the past years, the United States have had a negative savings rate, meaning that people have been spending more money than they have been earning, the difference coming from savings or… debt. And now that the credit system is collapsing, what are the government’s plans? Borrowing money and giving it to taxpayers, whose consumption will mainly profit, as forementioned, to countries like China. Is the model sustainable? It is against any common sense to believe that savings or indebtedness capacity are both illimited, therefore something must be done either from the revenue side of the income statement, either from the expense side. Pumping state money through it is nothing else but an artificial way to postpone the date when the bill will have to be footed, as public debt will have to be paid a day or another. In defence of the Americans, one of the explanations of the credit frenzy is the stagnation of real wages over the last decades, at least for the major part of the population (cf. papers by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez about the progression of top incomes). An overhaul of the tax system is by consequence indispensable, and the public opinion needs to reconsider its position about taxes: they are no devil, but an instrument of social justice. How can’t one be shocked by listening Warren Buffen to claim that he pays relatively less taxes than his secretary?

At the same time, a reflection must be led about the possibly excessive American consumption. A recent article published by the Guardian and dealing with the use of white paint to struggle against global warm showed a photo scattered with Californian light-coloured roofs and… swimming pools. Quite amusing when you learn that this sunny state is water-stressed and regularly faces shortages. Even more amusing when you learn that so far, the solutions proposed involve an increase of the supply via the construction of new dams or desalination factories, but no effort of efficiency improvement on farmers’ behalf (who use 80% of California’s water resources) nor on citizens’. This is a striking illustration of the contradictions that toss a country which gave birth to the environmentalist movement but which remains simultaneously one of the biggest polluters of the planet. A country forged by the ideas of Enlightment and bearer of a universal message while being reluctant to be binded by these principles. So, can America change? Solutions exist. Let us hope that people will put them into practice and prove that the American Dream goes far beyond the petit-bourgeois comfort of the small house, the swimming-pool and the numbing feeling of safety and retirement from the rest of the world.