Presidential Debate from a European Perspective

The letter from the German authorities caught my attention. Mostly because it was asking for a bunch of money, but also because of what was going on back home in the U.S.

The letter was to inform me that, because I now live in Germany and because I have a television connection, I am liable to pay a monthly fee to support the nation’s public broadcasting system.

Owing to the socialist bent of Germany policies – not to mention the country’s pressing need to raise a few bucks – I wasn’t all that surprised to get hit up for money. I figured the fee would be €50 per year – something like $65.

Wrong. The fee is €17, or about $22, per month. Per year, that’s more than $250 from each TV-owning household in the country, all to fund television and radio programs that a lot of German residents surely don’t use (and that this particular German resident can’t understand anyway).

The arrival of that fateful letter happened to coincide with the public broadcast debate going on in the States. A few days earlier, Mitt Romney had made his now-famous quip about how he would cut funding to PBS and, as a result, boot Big Bird off the air. Romney later doubled down on those comments, while Barack Obama later poked fun at those comments:

After that, people continued to analyze Romney’s statements, and even profiled the Barack Obama campaign manager who devised a pro-Big Bird, anti-Romney ad.

But as much play as it got in the U.S., this topic simply doesn’t translate to European politics – at least European politics in this left-leaning neck of the woods. After all, the 2012 budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports not only Big Bird and PBS but also National Public Radio, is $445 million, which, accounting for America’s 132 million or so housing units, works out to less to about $3.40 per house, per year.

And here in Germany? You’re hit up for more than $22 per month. (The same “if you own a TV you have to pay” ethos exists in other countries, including the U.K., where public funding pays for things like live radio coverage of the NFL Draft.) Europeans don’t like paying these public broadcasting fees, but it’s par for the course. A couple bucks a year wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

And this is just one of the many topics of the presidential and vice-presidential debates that are entirely non-issues here. Some others:

Energy policy: Energy came up in each of the first two debates. In the presidential debate, these were the notable nuggets:

Obama: On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we’ve got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years. But I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments…..

Romney: Mr. President, all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half. If I’m president, I’ll double them, and also get the – the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I’ll bring that pipeline in from Canada.

And, by the way, I like coal. I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies. I want to get America and North America energy independent so we can create those jobs….

So the heart of the issue, for both candidates, is oil and natural gas, and Romney tosses in the bit about coal. Obama does give a passing, almost apologetic nod to “energy sources of the future,” but Romney pretty well swats that away:

Romney: And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world….

But don’t forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years’ worth of breaks, into – into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right? So this – this is not – this is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy secure.

The next week, Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, also set out to vilify the Obama Administration’s green energy policies in the vice-presidential debate:

Ryan: Look at just the $90 billion in stimulus. The vice president was in charge of overseeing this. $90 billion in green pork to campaign contributors and special interest groups. There are just at the Department of Energy over 100 criminal investigations that have been launched into just how stimulus….Was it a good idea to borrow all this money from countries like China and spend it on all these various different interest groups?

Biden did a better job deflecting this criticism than Obama did – not saying much – but the point is simple enough: The Obama Administration spent an unprecedented sum of money, $90 billion, on green energy, and it’s now being used against them.

This is particularly noteworthy in Germany: Energy prices are going to spike in 2013 – and they’re going to spike on purpose. From Germany’s Der Spiegel:

The price hike is the result of an assessment under the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), a sort of green-energy solidarity surcharge that is automatically added to every consumer’s electricity bill. Under the agreement reached in the last round of negotiations, the assessment will increase from 3.6 cents to 5.4 cents per kilowatt hour.
 
With the new rates, German citizens will be paying a total of more than €20 billion ($25.7 billion) next year to promote renewable energy. This is more than €175 for an average three-person household, a 50 percent increase over current figures. And then there are the additional charges a consumer pays for the electricity tax, the cogeneration assessment, the concession fee and value-added tax.

Maybe this price increase isn’t technically a tax, but when citizens are forced to pay for government plans, it’s immaterial whether you call it a “tax” or a “charge” or a “new rate.” The bottom line is that Germany’s politicians wittingly negotiated a deal that will cost taxpayers billions. Obama also spent billions of taxpayer dollars on green energy, sure. But the big difference is that he appears unwilling to defend it, and even more unwilling to say the U.S. should keep doing it.

Taxes: There of course isn’t room to quote all the debate discussion about taxes – what happens to the middle class, what does (or doesn’t) happen to the upper class, corporate tax rates, mortgage subsidies and so on. This is the eminent topic of the election, for better or worse, and it has dominated the discourse.

Taxes, to be sure, do not occupy the same gargantuan mind-share in Western Europe. A couple years ago, I had a job at a university newspaper in Denmark, where I went to school. It was basically the Danish version of a work study gig.

Taxes ate something like 40 percent of my checks, and while I did get paid a relatively hefty sum of money considering the job – depending on the exchange rate, I got about $18 an hour – I certainly wasn’t a “high earner.” I paid a three times higher rate than Mitt Romney, even though Mitt Romney earned 1.5 kajillion more than I did.

Here in Germany, a cool one-third of my paychecks are nixed by taxes, including some fun ones. There is, for instance, a “reunification tax,” which for the last two-plus decades has been devoted to helping Eastern Germany erase the residue of Communist rule. There is also a “church tax,” meaning if you belong to a church, you might not need to drop anything in the collection basket each Sunday. The government plucks the donation out of your paycheck before you ever have a chance to consider how much you want to give.

Abortion: Even if it wasn’t mentioned in the first presidential debate, abortion is an omnipresent issue of this presidential race. After not getting a chance to explain his (current) stance on abortion at the debate, Romney took to the press to assure moderates that he doesn’t really care that much about abortion:

Mitt Romney said on Tuesday that he has no plans for abortion legislation if elected president, a statement that is more moderate than ones he’s made on the issue in the past.
 
“There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” Romney told the Des Moines Register editorial board….
 
Asked to clarify the Republican nominee’s position, Romney spokesman Andrea Saul sent an email saying that Romney “is proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president.” She also said that Romney “would of course support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life.”

Whatever that means.

The vice presidents waxed poetic about their differing abortion positions when they were explicitly asked about it. Paul Ryan of course said he was pro-life, Biden said that he was pro-choice.

That this topic keeps coming up shows its import, as does the gratuitous coverage it receives in the press. The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson, for one, wrote two abortion articles in the span of a few days – and that’s in addition to this abortion article from fellow New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

And at the New York Times website, this article was the “Most Read” piece on Saturday.

In other words, it’s a big topic with big interest – in the States, that is. In Germany and elsewhere – including Denmark, which is among the European nations that include abortion in government-provided healthcare plans – this is a non-issue.

There are other campaign topics that will come up between now and November 6 that people here couldn’t care less about. Like, say, the inevitable guns-rights questions that’ll be asked at Tuesday’s town hall debate.

That doesn’t make them unworthy issues, nor does it make Europe’s political discourse sophisticated. That discourse, make no mistake, is often anything but sophisticated. It’s just interesting to think about how incompatible these topics are with European politics, and how so much of this stuff would sound perfectly odd over here.

Like, for instance, Romney’s stump claim, made again last week, that, “The 21st century can and must be an American century.”

That statement would probably raise some eyebrows, and stir some uncomfortable imagery, if it came from a German politician.

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David Vranicar is the author of the ebook The Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. Visit the book’s website or check it out on Amazon.

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Photo Credit: YanniKouts

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