We need a new act in the American political circus

I give up. I have been trying to avoid the quadrennial American political circus that, this year, is especially disturbing. I have taken an essay I published here two years ago and updated the statistics, some of the text, and (unavoidably) my age. I think my thoughts of two years ago are still very much valid today. So, here it is.

The excitement caused by Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has died down to a whisper, but not the issues he raised regarding the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a minority of the population. The futility of implementing his proposed global wealth tax is obvious to all but the most blindly ideological. The argument over how one determines “wealth” will continue.

I will not deal with wealth here, but focus on income, something easier to quantify and a measure of how much a group benefits at any given point in time, and I will concern myself only with the US. The statistics on US income are not the target of particular controversy. Since the same basic trend can be found among the top 1%, the top 5%, and the top 10% of income-earners, I will use the middle group, the 5%, as my example today.

Using the statistics provided at The World Top Incomes Database created by Mr. Piketty’s team, here is a graph of the percentage of total income in the US earned by the  “top 5%” over a 63-year period beginning in 1953 and the inauguration of President Eisenhower through 2015, the third year of President Obama’s second and final term. This removes the impact of World War Two and any residual impact during President Truman’s tenure. Call this, if you like, the Modern Age.

Income share of the top 5%

Clearly, something significant happened in the 1980’s. This graph concerns US income distribution, so it must reflect government policies, at least in good part, right?

Most people’s first reaction to this graph, at least those from my generation (I am 71), is to identify President Reagan’s tax cuts as the turning point. To me, that is too much focus on a tree while the forest stares me in the face.

The first 28 years, when the top 5% received just over 20% of the income, represent six Presidencies (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter), three Democrats and three Republicans.

The remaining 35 years represent five Presidencies (Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, GW Bush, and Obama), three Republicans and two Democrats.

Some were generally judged to be conservative (e.g., Reagan), some moderate (e.g., Carter), and some liberal (e.g., Obama).

Ignoring trees and looking at the forest, what does this graph tell me? It tells me that the party identification or the ideological identification of the governing President made absolutely no difference at all to the proportion of income received by the top 5%.

There is no correlation, none, nada, zilch. If there was, you would be looking at a roller coaster, not a flat plain leading up to a mountainside. Either that, or Presidents Clinton and Obama are secret admirers of President Reagan.

Now, let me be clear. I see no sense in demonizing people who earn more money than I do. Nor am I a fan of demonizing people who are paid a lot more money than I think they are worth, as long as it’s not my money. If it’s my money given willingly, than I am the demon. But this is not the issue that concerns me today.

What concerns me is that we are now beginning the intense final period of an election year. Once again, I have no doubt Republicans will be criticized, even demonized, as the ones responsible for the results shown above. Once again, I have no doubt Democrats will insist they are the only people standing between the greedy corporate hoard and the innocent public.

I also have no doubt that the Democrats will be demonized as the “tax and spend” party, while Republicans will insist that only they can offer the programs that will strengthen the free market and benefit everyone.

To me, the graph above puts the lie to all that.

I am an independent and am thoroughly unimpressed with both “major” political parties. Their leadership is uninspired and uninspiring, and I am not alone. The results are clear in the polls. But I am especially not a fan of political manipulation from either side and one look at that chart explains why.

I am an American and intend to remain one, but I live and work outside the US. I look back with sorrow on my home nation. The level of semi-hysterical emotionalism from our political leadership is unnerving. The world has changed and I believe they know it, but I don’t think they have a clue what to do about it that won’t cost them votes in the election, if they actually do have a clue. After all, it is not about reality, it is about votes. To make matters worse, it seems most economic and investment analysts are every bit as blind, frightened, and lost. After all, it is not about reality, it is about money.

However, what really aggravates me is that this is so simple and so obvious.  Why is it so hard for the politicians and the analysts to see that it goes ignored?

Our current leaders, both political and economic, of what I call the “Old World of the North Atlantic” are so trapped in the failure of their own analyses and policies of past decades that they are unable to look clearly at the present for fear of the future, especially their future.

I will listen to Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton in the campaign now underway, hoping to hear something far more innovative and convincing than I have heard from either to date.

But I am pleased that I will have one other choice to consider.  For the first time in my lifetime, as far as I’m concerned, a “third party” provides two candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency who deserve attention.  They are the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, former two-term Governor of New Mexico elected to his second term by a double-digit margin, and William Weld, former two-term Governor of Massachusetts elected to his second term by an astonishing 43% margin.  That’s not a landslide; that’s an earthquake!

There are other third parties that will be represented, but none have or expect to have candidates who have the credentials to step into office and go to work as Governors.  Five of our last seven Presidents came to the Oval Office via a Governor’s mansion – Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, and GW Bush.   It is a very credible route to the Presidency and the Vice Presidency and these two gentlemen have earned their credibility as much as any of those who came before them.

At the very least, I would like to see the Libertarian ticket reach 15% in at least five national polls and qualify for inclusion in the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.  The Republican and Democratic tickets need to be forced to deal with serious issues they otherwise likely will ignore or address in the spiteful and nasty way they do now.

There is much yet to be said and done, but it is a relief to know that there are three tickets to choose from, not just two, but the third one needs to be heard by everyone.

Like it or not, the more than seven billion of us who keep things running on this planet must depend on leadership that has a clear idea of where we are, where we should be, how we should get there, and then are able to communicate that to the rest of us successfully. That leadership does not exist today, most clearly not in US or in Europe, but the problem is global.

I like to think that the United States of America, which has been such a great global leader in decades past, can once again be a great global leader in today’s confused and conflicted world.

Until it does, we are all lost in a global forest. And pardon me for saying so, but I smell fire.

Postscript – This campaign has been absorbing my attention recently, despite my distaste for the insults and shouting, but it has brought me back to another concern that is very important to me as a result of five decades of professional work – the ongoing growth of a new global economy. I will be dealing with that, along with my interests in genetics, automation, and other future-oriented topics, in coming weeks.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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5 Responses to We need a new act in the American political circus

  1. Hallie says:

    My brother supports Johnson, probably for similar reasons. To me, income inequality has always been a fact of life, as is inequality, period. There will always be people richer, smarter, prettier than me. Facts of life don’t depend on presidencies. People who look to the political parties to make this change are in fact angry at the real world. Not everything can be easily resolved.

    • Bob Adams says:

      I agree Hallie, but that is not my point. I think I make it clear that I do not use this as a reason to vote for anyone as it is rather obvious that it has not made much of a difference for the last three decades or so. My concern is that the two leading tickets do not simply spend the rest of the campaign throwing stones at each other, but also are challenged to speak on issues they would prefer be ignored. I am very familiar with negative campaigns, but it is disturbing to see two Presidential candidates both running negative campaigns. That is a recipe for another four years to add to the last sixteen of a severely divided nation where consensus is not genuinely sought. I think a third voice would help everyone. Thus I did not endorse the Libertarians, but I do believe they provide a legitimate “third way” that helps break up this on-going shouting match the “major” parties have wallowed in for far too long and help us focus on issues, not just anger.

  2. billdorgan says:

    Just my two-cents:

    While I agree with your assessment of the present doleful political situation in the US, I cannot see how any third party candidates, as qualified as they may well be, would have a substantial impact on the General Election in 100 days. I am of the opinion that a vote for any third party candidate in this polarizing and “historic” election is a willfully wasteful vote. In other words, a vote for Johnson/Weld or Jill Stein is really an unredeemable protest-vote … a vote for Trump/Pence.

    I was a Bernie-bot. I will now vote for Clinton/Kaine.

    One problem with this Election is that those over 65 (members of the largest birth-cohort ever) are not leaving the planet as quickly as they should, and old age truly scares them. And all the possible candidates of any of the parties are 63-70, and older. It’s this cohort, the “Silents” and “Boomers”, and their presumptive leaders, who fear their familiar world is collapsing, and it is … faster than their worry can spook them.

    And their grandchildren, the Mollcoddled-Millennials, refuse to be politically-involved in a process they deem alien and reactionary. Many “Feel-the-Berners” got really burnt, and their hopes throttled, by a system they believe is thoroughly corrupt. Hopefully their continued revolution will lead to changed world 2016+.

    • Bob Adams says:

      Once the party nomination campaigns were underway, it took far less than 100 days for Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders to establish that they were certainly not “fringe” candidates, but very serious candidates. One actually succeeded and the other came closer than anyone ever imagined at the outset. That has been the “big story” of the 2016 election process to date. 100 days is more than enough to turn this election campaign upside-down yet again. Never forget, there are people in other nations who may suddenly drive all memories from the last few months from everyone’s minds before this is over.

      There is no such thing as a “wasted vote”. That’s a very old argument indeed. I remember how many Republicans as well as others voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as the “peace candidate” running against Barry Goldwater, the “war candidate”. which led to the most memorable tv ad of that time and for some years to come. Imagine how many Democrats felt they had wasted their votes when LBJ increased the number of troops and the commitment of the US to the war beginning in early 1965 and continuing. See the war’s timeline and start reading at 1964 when the campaign was underway. He paid severely for that in his own party and finally withdrew from his re-nomination campaign.

      More recently, in 2011, President Obama took the US into the Libyan Civil War, but no one in the Democratic Party was willing to challenge him when he ran for re-nomination to explain why that was was somehow more justified than GW Bush’s Iraq War and the subject is never raised by Democrats, anymore than his earlier decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December of 2009. That war is yet to end for America and neither Afghanistan nor Libya are at peace now. Just imagine if a John McCain or Mitt Romney had been responsible. That is not discussed either, despite continued American involvement in both nations.

      I have not asked anyone to vote for the Libertarian ticket. I have simply expressed the hope that they will be included in the debates. Candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency deserve to be questioned and confronted before they are elected, but the two current Presidential candidates spend most of their time attacking each other and I don’t think that will make for debates that really inform voters, but only inflame passions and further contribute to the continued gridlock that has kept the US chasing its own political tail for 16 years now. Enough already.

      I have been a campaign worker, a campaign advisor, and even a campaign manager for candidates in decades past when I was politically active, and those candidates included Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. I can assure you that 100 days is a very, very, very long time. In a single day, events can take control of any campaign. As Donald Trump now knows, it can take only minutes. His pathetic response only made it worse, but it reminds us how quickly campaigns can change.

      If anyone would like to judge for themselves as to whether Johnson and Weld would add or detract to the debates, they will be in a second “Town Hall” meeting this Wednesday evening, August 3rd, at 9 pm on CNN. Their first town meeting went well, but now the stakes are higher and it will interesting to see how they handle the pressure.

      In any case, thank you (and Hallie below) for your comments! Intelligent commentary is always welcome here!

  3. Hallie says:

    Hi, I think I do get the point of your article. I was probably unclear, but when I was mentioning inequality I meant it simply as an example of the motivating force behind voters’ emotions and preferences. They are essentially seeking — at least IMHO — a silver bullet to the world’s problems rather than accept the reality. (Inequality is one such reality.) They want something that doesn’t seem to exist — or no longer exists, as in the case of older voters — or something that can’t be easily resolved or attainable. But by golly, they still want it. The politicians, not wanting to alienate them, will say anything and everything basically to win votes. Maybe a middle ground might attract the realists or those who, like you, are fed up with everything that’s all flash, no substance and appreciate cold, hard logic. But I don’t see this really happening because of the extreme polarity going on.

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