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Fudging real issues in elections

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October 04, 2003 14:54 IST

Most viewers in India would have missed the recent televised debate between the 10 Democrat contenders for the United States presidential election.

The big issue was jobs, and all 10 kept harping on the theme. At least half of them blamed world trade, saying that the US was losing jobs to its trade partners.

One candidate wanted the US to walk out of both NAFTA and the WTO (members of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, take heart!).

Some candidates argued forcefully that America couldn't create jobs by refusing to trade with the rest of the world -- implying that someone out there was arguing just such a line.

One wanted only that trade which was fair. The best quip was from Gephardt, who asked: How many more Americans must lose their jobs before George Bush loses his?

US election campaigners are of course known for such one-liners, and for their focus on very real economic and social issues.

If it isn't jobs, it's medicare, or taxes, or reform of social security, or the education system. Or Iraq, of course. The pity is that they're also known for their rampant populism and voodoo solutions.

So, the interesting point about the two-hour debate last week was that not one candidate mentioned the value of the US currency as an issue that is linked to the loss of jobs.

Fact is, an expert committee went into the issue during the last years of the Clinton administration, and argued that the dollar would have to drop by a staggering 40 per cent against the principal currencies of the world, if the US was to wipe out its trade deficit -- reckoned as 5 per cent of its GDP and growing rapidly.

At the height of its crises, India's deficit didn't cross 2 per cent of GDP, and we had to devalue by 25 per cent in 1991 to correct the situation. So the argument that it has to be 40 per cent devaluation for the dollar, sounds credible.

But imagine mentioning that in a political debate: that the almighty dollar has to bow to the yen and euro.

Already, though, the buzz in more professional circles is that the dollar has to fall, and the recent meeting of the G-7 implied that the process is about to begin.

Instead of ruing this, Americans should in fact be calling for it, because it is this that will create the jobs everyone wants, by righting the trade balance, by encouraging more exports and by pricing out many imports.

It would mean trouble for the rest of the world, of course, since almost all countries now have large trade surpluses with the US and these will disappear if the dollar slumps.

Remember how Japan went into a decade-long slump after the dollar fell against the yen by as much as 60 per cent in the 1980s.

My point is not currency dynamics, but that, even in a country known for addressing real issues in its elections, the underlying realities get ignored because the truth is seen as being unpalatable.

One sees this frequently in India too, of course.

The Left will never admit that all the economic policies that they criticised so bitterly in 1991, have in fact paid off handsomely; the Left will also not want us to remember that it had been bitterly critical of the green revolution in the 1960s, arguing that the new technology was anti-poor as it would benefit only large farmers.

Whereas the truth is that India can feed itself today and have grain available at reasonable prices for the poor, only because of the green revolution.

The Congress, likewise, will never admit that its nationalisation of commercial banks was in many ways a disaster.

And today, successive ministers put in charge of civil aviation will think they can fix the problems of India's two national carriers, refusing to see that there must be a reason why all their predecessors failed.

Similarly, every minister for information and broadcasting will want to fix Doordarshan and the various other incompetent or mediocre organisations that come under the ministry, without realising that government control is at the heart of the problem.

And so we will have ill-informed debates about the WTO (remember the Dunkell Draft and the charge in a state election campaign that farmers would not be able to use neem twigs to brush their teeth!).

The Americans don't have a patent on stupidity.

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