Hoping for a Magic Pill

Through the modern miracle of the “record” button on my TV remote control, which I have finally learned to use, I have watched the recent Republican debate.  Here are my thoughts on the candidates and the issues raised.


Repub candidatesRepublican candidates lined up at CNBC debate

Photo credit: Mark J. Terrill / Keystone


It is clear that Mike Huckabee has decided that he is going to be the candidate of the American Association of Retired Persons, the lobby for the aged in America.  Someone has failed to tell him that this is no longer a winning strategy, particularly during presidential election years when even the young and spry make it to the voting booths.  Huckabee claimed that any reduction in the Social Security and Medicare benefits “earned” by existing participants would be immoral; he equated this to the fraud for which Bernie Madoff is currently sitting in prison.

Although Huckabee was right to point out the fundamentally fraudulent nature of the government’s promise in these pay-as-you-go programs, he seemed to say that the only moral solution to the Ponzi scheme is to continue it.  At least for a little while longer.  I am pleased to say that many of the other candidates (I noted Cruz, Rand, Rubio and Christie, but there may have been others) had the courage to point out that, unfortunately, the American public is in the position of Flounder in the movie Animal House: “You f**ked up.  You trusted [the government].”


flounderThe immortal Flounder


The other candidates sketched out a number of proposals for making these programs more financially viable, usually involving some combination of raising retirement ages, slowing inflation adjustments, means-testing benefits and moving younger people to funded pensions.  For now, the details are not important.  What is important, however, is that the Republicans are the only ones even approximately telling the voters the truth about these programs, whereas the Democrats continue to invite voters to extend their stay on the Isle of Denial.

Huckabee has clearly been reading the Economic Man blog because he quoted me virtually word for word: “America doesn’t have a health care crisis.  America has a health crisis.”  However, although he got the tune right, he couldn’t quite do the dance.  His conclusion seems to be that we need a government-sponsored program to combat the four diseases which account for a large percentage of health care expenditures: cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.

What he forgot to mention is that we already have the cure for these diseases, with the possible exception of Alzheimer’s.  All of them can be greatly alleviated through changes in diet and lifestyle, something that the current structure of Medicare and other health insurance does nothing to promote.

Contrary to Huckabee’s “don’t blame the seniors” theme, Americans are very much to blame for the health crisis in the country.  And a continuation of the current incentives, and the current narrative, will do nothing to change this.  Huckabee’s hope for a magic pill that will spare Americans the consequences of their health irresponsibility is the type of fantasy solution I expect from the Democratic side of the aisle.


Health-Care-Varvel-IndianaApparently Indiana is currently leading in the health irresponsibility competition


Good Points Made, but no Truly Well-Rounded Candidate

Carly Fiorina put in another solid performance.  I particularly liked her line about crony capitalism, and the fact that big government is only good for big business.  After she drops out, someone should steal this.  And drop out she will, because her only claim to office is her “secretary to CEO” narrative and we all know that this is largely hollow.  Still, any Republican administration should try to find a role for her. Her time might come.

John Kasich also had a good debate.  He stayed on theme and came across as competent and experienced.  His best moment was when he attacked many of the other candidates for the dubious mathematics behind their tax plans.  This is a major vulnerability of the Republicans, who have a hard time attacking the Democrats for the fiscal irresponsibility of their spending plans when the laudable attempts of the Republicans to rationalize the tax system produce revenues that don’t add up.  The Republicans need to tweak the percentages and add some more tiers, but at least they are proposing saner structures.


MiracleOccursHere1Math is hard… some people don’t even know how many problems they have because math is one of them.


Another strong point of Kasich’s night was his frequent references to the performance of Ohio under his administration, which went largely unrebutted, despite a weak attempt to characterize the state as a fracking boom town.  He probably benefits from the fact that no one takes his candidacy seriously enough to attack him.  Nor should they take it seriously because, although Kasich comes across as a solid and reasonable technocrat, he is also clearly the kid who always had his lunch money stolen in elementary school.  And this makes him unelectable.  He would be an able addition to any Republican administration, although his highest and best use is probably exactly where he is, as the competent governor of an important swing state.

I don’t get why Chris “Big Boy” Christie is getting so little traction.  Was “Bridge-Gate” really such a mortal sin (even assuming he committed it)?  I thought that he had a great debate.  He came across as intelligent and, more importantly, courageous and truthful.  He also had, by my admittedly unorthodox standards, the best line of the night with his quip that John Harwood’s interjections “would be considered rude, even in New Jersey.”

His points about Obama’s politicized Department of Justice and the recent comments about the impact of the “Ferguson effect” on policing, made by Obama’s own appointee as Director of the FBI, were also very telling.  But Christie’s campaign appears to be going nowhere and it is tough to see how that changes.  He is a known quantity with good voter recognition.  There is no surprise that can give him the “bump” he needs.

Ben Carson is clearly a very decent person.  I would happily have him as my doctor or neighbor.  But he is embarrassing himself in this contest.  Let’s hope that he leaves it while we can still remember him for his civility and not his political incompetence.

Donald Trump had another night of substance vacuity.  So there is really nothing to comment on.  We just need to watch the post-debate polls and hope for the fall from grace.  Like Kim Kardashian, who is famous for being famous, Trump polls high because he polls high.  This is called an unstable equilibrium and when it cracks, it will crack hard.  This can’t happen too quickly for me and for the Republican Party.

Ted Cruz remains a paradox for me.   On the one hand, he is articulate and intelligent.  You have to give him credit for using the “Mensheviks versus Bolsheviks” line, and using it properly.  His “smack down” of the CNBC commentators has rightfully been applauded as one of the highlights of the night.  He was right on entitlements and he also largely right on Fed policy and its impact on inequality.

So, many bright spots, but then he occasionally comes out with something totally wacky like his comments about gold or his willingness to bring down the government over something like the funding of Planned Parenthood.  Yes, Planned Parenthood funding is a disgrace, but you need a sense of proportion.  You cannot go to the barricades over everything if you expect to govern.  In his current role as Republican gadfly, he has the benefit of irresponsibility.  But you worry about his ability to make the transition if he is actually handed the reins of power.

The interesting comment about Rand Paul came out before the debate began.  One of the CNBC talking heads said that when Paul walked into the cafeteria at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is a famous hot-bed of liberalism, he was greeted “almost like a rock star.”  This is confirmation for me that, as I pointed out in “In a Hole, With a Shovel,” my post-mortem on the 2012 election, the Republican Party can appeal to young voters if it adopts libertarian policies.


republitarian-00They even have their own logo…


Other than this, however, there wasn’t much to make me believe that he has any kind of shot.  He had a solid performance on a bunch of issues and mercifully stayed away from his NSA and Patriot Act positions, which are probably overblown from a policy standpoint and which are certainly not vote getters.  I hope he moves the center of gravity of the party, particularly on foreign interventionism, but his candidacy is not going anywhere.

For me, Marco Rubio was the winner of the night and he will now probably benefit from a shift in campaign donors who are always looking to ride the best horse.  For example, I see yesterday that influential conservative billionaire Paul Singer has come out for him.

He is a gifted speaker and clearly bright, and would obviously help the Republicans overcome their image as the “stupid party.”[1]  He is as articulate as Cruz, but without the strained gravitas that I see in his fellow Cuban-American.  His lines about the mainstream media being “the ultimate Democratic Super Pac” and his being “against anything that hurts my mom” were two of the best of the night.  He also passes the all-important “I-would-like-to-have-a-beer-with-this-guy” test, which would juxtapose nicely with Hillary Clinton, whose attempts to suppress her inner “Queen of Mean” are a major source of her phoniness.

On policy, he was good on entitlements, as noted above, and I particularly liked his comments on the need to shift immigration policy from a focus on families to a focus on merit.  (Once again, this harkens back to my views in “In a Hole, With a Shovel.”)  I liked his comments about vocational education, although he did not have the time to develop this theme.

He did an effective job pointing out the Hillary Clinton lie that was revealed in her Benghazi testimony, when she was talking “video” in public but “terrorism” in private.  Although I have tended to look upon Benghazi as a sideshow, I now believe that this is a real issue for someone with Clinton’s trust issue with voters.  I think that Rubio could make this stick in the general election, although he is fighting an uphill battle against the ultimate Democratic Super Pac.

But, overall, the pity is that Rubio is a great vice presidential understudy in search of an equally strong main actor.  And there is no one in sight.

And then we have Jeb Bush.  The debate was another non-event for him.  I think that he really suffers from the “face in a crowd” effect of having so many other candidates.  He just doesn’t have a strong enough personality or sufficient charisma – or even any charisma – to stand out.  His problem is that his campaign may die out before the crowd thins out.  He committed no gaffes, with the exception of his attack on Rubio for his absenteeism, but error-free defence is not sufficient for him.  He needs to put some points on the board and he didn’t do this.  And the buzzer may have already sounded.

In general, I thought that the Republicans had a good and substantive debate and, in particular, effectively developed the theme that the Democrats are the party of a “business as usual” approach that is no longer viable.  They covered most of the major issues, but I wish they had spent more time on education, especially K-12 reform, which is a major Democratic weakness.

Energy policy was a glaring omission, particularly by comparison to the last Democratic debate, where the words “climate change” rang out constantly.  This will be a big issue in 2016 and an overwhelmingly important one with young voters, although I may be subject to a cognitive bias here; maybe mainstream America won’t care so long as gas prices are cheap.

Overall, I still don’t see a candidate with the combination of competence, experience and electability that I would like to see.  On the evidence coming out of Boulder, Rubio is the closest approximation, but I would like to see him less interventionist on foreign policy and with another eight years on his CV.


Insufferable Moderators

One final comment.  The opprobrium that has been heaped on the CNBC moderators is entirely deserved.  They were pathetic.  Carl Quintanilla was a self-satisfied imbecile; his opening question about the candidates’ greatest weaknesses should have drawn a response like “My greatest weakness is that I don’t suffer fools gladly, and so maybe you should ask a different question?”  From this lowly start, he somehow found a way to deteriorate.


CNBC moderatorsCNBC moderators Quintanilla, Quick and Harwood. Their performance drew a harsh response from the RNC.

Photo credit: Jim Wilson / The New York Times


I almost fell off my sofa when Becky Quick actually asked a question based on one of the most discredited statistics on the planet, the “77 cents on the dollar” claim about the gender pay gap[2].  When she subsequently had Trump dead to rights on one of his bullshit answers about immigration, she somehow managed to fumble.

John Harwood’s attempts at tough questioning reminded me of Denis Healey’s insult about being “savaged by a dead sheep.”  And what was Jim Cramer doing there?  He is bad enough when he is hysterically pumping stocks; his attempts at sober political questioning left everyone in the auditorium with a “who farted?” look on their face.


healeyDenis Healey, a former UK labor party politician (he held numerous ministerial posts in the 1970s), who famously remarked in a House of Commons debate in 1978 that being criticized be Geoffrey Howe was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

Photo credit: PA / Empics


And whoever asked the question about fantasy football should have been summarily executed, although it did give a chance to Jeb Bush for his only stand-out moment of the night. His team is apparently 7-0.


jebMeet the fantasy football winner. $100 million in campaign donations well spent…

Photo via nesn.com




[1] Interestingly, in the United Kingdom, the roles are reversed.  Here, Labour is very much perceived as the backward-looking “stupid party.”  This proves that there is nothing in conservatism that forces this result.  With just a few changes on social issues and a more realistic approach to energy policy and immigration, the Republicans can also dump this label.

[2] Tom Woods does a great job ripping apart this statistic here.  To begin with, the math is just plain wrong because, once you adjust for the actual hours worked instead of just assuming that everyone working a full-time job (defined as anyone working more than 35 hours a week) is putting in the same time, the gap shrinks to 88 cents on the dollar.  This remaining discrepancy happens to equal the gender pay gap in Obama’s administration, which, when it was questioned, was attributed to the fact that men and women in the Obama White House don’t do the same jobs.  Well, daaahhhh.  Back in my undergraduate days, I mocked this statistic by having a bunch of buttons printed up with “$1.00” when some on-campus feminists starting wearing buttons with “77 cents” on them (or the then-equivalent statistic).  I was right but that doesn’t mean that my sex life didn’t suffer.


Image captions by PT


This article was originally posted at Economic Man.

Roger Barris is an American who has lived in Europe for over 20 years, now based in the UK. Although basically retired now, he previously had senior positions at Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch and his own firm, initially in structured finance and latterly in principal and fiduciary investing, focussing on real estate. He has a BA in Economics from Bowdoin College (summa cum laude) and an MBA in Finance from the University of Michigan (highest honors).




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4 Responses to “Republican Debate in Boulder”

  • JasonEmery:

    I guess they all forgot to talk about balancing the budget, lol. Too busy thinking up ways ways to spend a big pile of trillions to worry about no stinking budget.

  • All-Your-Gold-Are-Mine:

    Mr. “basically retired” summa cum laude / highest honors Roger Barris is fascinated with one liners… evidently for him, a good way to elect a president. Previously held “senior positions” at Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch… given their reputations as greedy crooks, criminals, and poor managers of money, I thought one would keep such involvement a secret. To each his own… lol.

  • Crysangle:

    What would they have said if you had offered to exchange a 77 cent badge for a 1 dollar badge for a 23 cent fee ?

    I guess not.

  • No6:

    Who needs these idiots to tell us how to live?

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