Friday, April 11, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

I have finished reading Barack Obama’s most recent book The Audacity of Hope. In his book, Obama set outs his vision for a more just and tolerant US and how that might be achieved. The book is extraordinarily well written and is testament to Obama’s rhetorical ability.

On the whole, I agree with Obama’s views and overall vision for his country. For example, I think his call for a more strategic and multilateral approach to foreign policy in the twenty first century is welcome. He also articulates clear and practical ideas on improving US tertiary education and how the ailing, costly and inequitable US health system might be reformed. Obama, despite his relative inexperience in Federal politics, has clearly thought about these issues in some depth.

Obama also articulates a positive role for Christianity in politics, society and Nation. Importantly, he sees the Church as having a significant role to play in reducing disadvantage and social exclusion rather than in reducing individual choice and enforcing so called “moral values”. These views are similar in substance to those expressed by Kevin Rudd in his highly publicised essay in Australia’s The Monthly magazine. They are welcome given the increased penetration in US public life of conservative Christianity under the Bush administration.

There are, however, a few ideas on which I have to take issue with Obama. In his book, Obama emphasises the importance of reducing the US’s dependence on foreign oil and the requirement for a more muscular response to climate change. His most significant policy idea to address both of these issues is to promote the use of ethanol based E85 fuel for transportation. E85 is manufactured from ethanol derived from maize and when combusted has lower greenhouse gas emissions than petrol. There are significant environmental and economic arguments against an ethanol based approach to reducing oil dependence and tackling the problems associated with climate change. The environmental costs of the agricultural activity required to produce E85 are substantial and efforts to promote the fuel in the US are often seen as a further way to subsidise the US’s relatively inefficient agricultural sector. Additionally, the production of E85 is often at the expense of food production. Consequently, food prices increase due to greater scarcity and food self-sufficiency decreases. This has the perverse impact of increasing dependence on food, rather than oil, imports.  Mr Obama, I think, will have to look at different and more sustainable approaches to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.  

I have further problems with Obama’s approach to trade policy. Despite Obama’s view that, on the whole, he believes in market free markets, he also often laments the impact of a globalised market place on US manufacturing. His views on this issue suggest that he may harbour some protectionist tendencies for short-term policy gain rather than a willingness to implement the politically more difficult course of a strategic structural adjustment programme. At any rate, he fails in his book to articulate the form that any structural adjustment programme should take. Some of his policy positions in the presidential primary race have reinforced my fears of his latent protectionist tendencies.

Some other problems that I have with Obama’s views relate to Indonesia. Obama talks in some detail about Indonesia as a precursor to his chapter on foreign policy. He has some authority to talk on issues associated with Indonesia having spent several of his formative years in the country. Obama paints a picture of Wahhabist institutions dotting the countryside and “‘vice squads’ attacking churches, nightclubs, casinos and brothels”. I would argue that, despite a significant increase in Islamist tendencies since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime, this picture is inaccurate. The majority of Indonesians Muslims are tolerant and committed to the pluralism embodied in the Country’s foundation ideology, Pancasila. Moreover, Islam remains a fairly weak political force in the country as evidenced by the performance of Islamic political parties in the 2004 general elections.

I also take issue with Obama’s belief that capital punishment can be justified. Despite the fact that Obama strongly criticises the death penalty in the US as it is currently applied, he goes on to say that “there are some crimes…so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meeting out the ultimate punishment.” While Mr Obama is entitled to this point of view, I would argue that there are absolutely no crimes that can justify the cost on society of taking the perpetrators life in cold blood. As I wrote in a letter published in The Australian on 10 October 2007 “the death penalty is a barbarous act that cannot be condoned by a civilised society in the 21st century.” The chances of a miscarriage of justice, the brutality of the act itself and the impacts on those who carry out the punishment are all strong arguments against the US’s continued use of the death penalty.

Having read his book, I have further solidified my view that Obama remains the best of the three presidential candidates on offer. The views expressed in his book are well thought out, frankly presented and reflect a positive vision for the US.

It is interesting to note that Mr Obama’s priest, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, provided the inspiration for the book’s title. Given the recent controversy surrounding Wright’s views on race and Obama’s forced public repudiation of Wright’s more extreme positions, I wonder whether Mr Obama regrets his choice of title.