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The flaws of America's election

Unhinged campaign spending provides unfair advantage to wealthy


Posted: November 14, 2012

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The flaws of America's election

By Peter Singer

No doubt many people around the world, if not most, breathed a sigh of relief over the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama. A BBC World service poll of 21 countries found a strong preference for Obama everywhere except Pakistan. Joy over the election's outcome, however, should not blind us to its failure to meet a series of ethical benchmarks for democratic choice.

According to the U.S.-based Center for Responsive Politics, spending on the election - for president and Congress, and including spending by outside groups as well as by the candidates and their political parties - is estimated to have exceeded $6 billion. That makes the 2012 U.S. election the most expensive ever held.

The bulk of this spending is just the two opposing parties canceling each other out. This benefits advertising agencies and the media, but no one else, and surely not the parties themselves or the viewers who are bombarded with ads, especially if they happen to live in hotly contested swing states. It is difficult to believe that, say, $200 million would not have been enough to inform the electorate adequately of the candidates' policies.

In this scenario, spending limits would have saved about $5.8 billion. And, if such limits were combined with public financing of election campaigns, they would also help the election to meet an important ethical standard by denying the rich a disproportionate influence on outcomes, and hence on the subsequent actions of the president and Congress.

No one really expects political advertising to provide citizens with the information they need to assess the candidates' merits properly. For the presidential election, however, the practice of holding three televised debates between the two major parties' candidates should be an opportunity for a thorough airing of those issues. Unfortunately, the most recent debates failed to achieve that goal.

Consider, for example, the final debate in October, which was supposed to focus on foreign policy. The United States may no longer be the world's undisputed leader, as it was in the decade following the Soviet Union's collapse, but it nonetheless has a vital role to play in international affairs. Obama referred to the United States as "the indispensable nation," and that description still holds true, in part because U.S. military spending exceeds that of the next nine countries combined - five times more than China, the world's second-largest military spender.

There was, however, no serious discussion of the conditions under which it would be right to use that military might. Both candidates indicated they did not favor military intervention to prevent the Syrian government from killing more of its citizens, but neither was prepared to say when they would be prepared to accept the responsibility to protect citizens who come under attack from their own government, or from forces that their government is unwilling or unable to restrain.

Both candidates said they would support Israel and not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but there was no discussion of solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, or of the grounds on which countries that possess nuclear weapons might be justified to use force to prevent others from developing them.

Indeed, what was not discussed in the candidates' debate on foreign policy was more significant than what was. All of the discussion focused on the region that stretches from Libya to Iran. China was mentioned only in terms of its supposed "cheating" on trade and currency matters. Issues like the eurozone's troubles and relations with Russia received no attention at all. Needless to say, neither candidate thought it worthwhile to put forward a proposal to assist the more than 1 billion people living in extreme poverty.

The gravest omission was climate change. The closest Obama got to it during a debate was to talk about "energy independence," which implies not being reliant on oil from the Middle East. That, obviously, is something that every patriotic American wants.

Obama also mentioned he had raised fuel-economy standards for cars in the United States and had invested in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power. But, when Romney talked about increasing coal production, Obama neglected to point out that carbon dioxide from coal-fired electricity generation is already a major contributor to climate change, that we still lack the technology to produce "clean coal" and that increasing the use of coal will impose huge burdens on people worldwide.

It took the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to get the president to mention climate change. After that, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was endorsing Obama, because his policies were better on climate change. In response, Obama acknowledged climate change is "a threat to our children's future, and we owe it to them to do something about it."

Now that he has been re-elected, the question is whether he will pay that debt to our children and to the generations that follow them.

- Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save. © Project Syndicate 2012


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