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As I write (mid-November) the final results of the US presidential election are not in, but we know enough to highlight some figures. With 66.7 million popular votes and counting, and with a lead of 6.5 percentage points over John McCain, Barack Obama won more popular votes than any other US presidential candidate in history: nearly 8 million more than John Kerry in 2004, and a cool 15.7m more than Al Gore in 2000 (when Gore won more popular votes than GW Bush, but lost in the Supreme Court – remember?). Obama’s share of the popular vote (52.6%) was the highest of any Democratic candidate since LBJ (1964), and higher than any Republican since 1956 except GWH Bush, Reagan (1984) Nixon (1972) and Eisenhower (1956).
Some suggest that Obama won because many Republicans failed to vote, but the figures scarcely confirm this: Senator McCain won 58.3m votes (46.1%, comparable with GW Bush in 2000 with 47.9%), 3.8m fewer than G W Bush in 2004 but 7m more than the same Bush in 2000. Each candidate won a very respectable share of the vote, on probably the highest percentage turnout (over 60%) for 40 years. Those who imagine an entire American population transformed by the election into leftish, colour-blind liberals need reminding that Senator McCain, after a policy-lite campaign driven by smears, innuendos and outright lies, nevertheless won 58.3 million votes across the country, including an estimated 55% of white voters, taking almost all the mid-west (from Montana and North Dakota southwards) and the south, apart from Colorado, New Mexico and Florida (where Obama won by 51-49%). Equally sobering, McCain was ahead in the polls until the financial crisis broke and he frivolously selected Governor Palin as running-mate, two events that probably lost him the election.
The victory of Barack Obama is hugely welcome to almost everyone in the outside world, but he will have a monumental task in living up to the extraordinary expectations that have been raised, especially confronting the challenges of climate change, global recession, world poverty, terrorism and foreign oil dependency, and two unwinnable wars – the poisoned chalice about to be handed to him by George W Bush.
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Was Mrs Thatcher, as she now isn’t, the first British political leader to confuse the economics of the private household with those of government, excoriating all borrowing as fecklessly irresponsible and asserting as common-sense that government must always balance its budgets? Such misconceptions have contaminated much comment on the financial crisis, people who should know better denouncing orthodox proposals to slash interest rates, reduce taxes on and increase benefits to the less well-off (who have the highest marginal propensity to spend rather than save, thus helping to boost demand in a recession), bring forward government spending on labour-intensive infrastructure public works, especially when environmentally positive, and fund this from increased government borrowing – since the only alternative is increased taxation, likely to deepen the recession. All good Keynesian economics: how surprising that it should appear controversial! The government’s critics are now agonising about the fall in the value of sterling. Massive exchange rate gyrations are unwelcome; but a fall in sterling helps exporters and so reduces deflationary pressures. Who’d be a finance minister at such a time?