The Not-So-Great Debates

Raphael, Disputà [Debate over the Nature of the Holy Sacrament], Vatican, Rome, 1509-10.


Despite their reputation, Neanderthals rarely lived in caves. But when they did, they must first have sat down on the ground (no chairs) and debated which cave was best – one was too small, another too damp, a third had a resident bear. Since their language skills were rudimentary, they probably did a lot of repeating, gesturing, and shouting. Nevertheless, the quality of their debates likely surpassed the two I watched this week, one between U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labor Party leader, Keir Starmer, and the other between U.S. President Joe Biden and presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump. After watching the latter, I felt like crawling into a cave.

Great debates

It wasn’t always thus. Renaissance painter Raphael’s fresco, the Disputà, shows a debate between gods, saints, popes and philosophers over the nature of the Sacrament. By its subject and structure, the picture proposes that transubstantiation (the host becoming the body of Christ) is as certain as the ground beneath our feet. Notice that the picture’s vanishing point – the place where perspectival lines on the floor meet — is the monstrance that holds the eucharistic host. Faith and proportion, spiritual and physical, are all one in Christ’s flesh. Millions were convinced, but Martin Luther and John Calvin among others, were not, and they protested. Now that was a debate!

Then there was the “Galileo Affair” (1632-42), when the famous astronomer argued – as Copernicus had — that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of the other way around. Papal officials thought that violated holy scripture, so they challenged Galileo in print and in court, eventually decreeing that he must “abandon completely…the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves.” Upon threat of torture, Galileo recanted, though he is said to have muttered, upon release from confinement by the Inquisition: “e pur si muove” (“nevertheless, it moves”). That was a great debate too!

Last example: In 1925, the state of Tennessee brought charges against John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, for violating the Butler Act which forbade teaching evolution. The resulting “Monkey Trial” pitted Scope’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow against the attorney for the state, former three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The contest became a national, public debate about evolution, as well as the value of science versus religion. Though the former lost at jury, it won in the court of public opinion — still another great debate!

The not-so-great British debate

The debate on Wednesday night between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer was handicapped from the start by bad questions from the audience: “I’m a student. How are you going to help me buy a house?” And: “You are both such jerks, why should I vote for either of you”? Those aren’t exact quotes, but close. Starmer’s approximate response was: “After 14 years of Tory government, I’m going to restore the idea of service”, as if he was applying for a job at Harrod’s. Sunak on the other hand, replied to nearly all questions by saying: “If you go with Labor, you will pay higher taxes. I can lower them,” as if he was pitching to clients at H & R Block.

To be sure, taxing and spending are at the heart of what every government does. But neither candidate acknowledged that the two are not always linked. One can tax for other purposes than to spend and spend without necessarily having to tax. Taxation can reduce social inequality, a chronic disease in the U.K. Less than one percent of the Britons own 50% of the land, a pattern that has existed since the 18th Century, when vast manor houses such as Blenheim and Castle Howard were physical manifestations of the superiority of lord to tenant and laborer. The biggest landowners today are aristocrats such as King Charles and the Duke of Buccleuch, as well as business tycoons, utility companies and commercial hunting estates. In the U.K., the centuries old process of enclosure – the privatization of common lands and resources – is still ongoing. Local councils regularly sell off publicly owned land (“county farms”), to recover income lost from previous Tory (and sometimes Labor) budget-cuts and austerity programs. 90% of British infrastructure and national assets are privately owned.

The richest 50 families in Britain possess more wealth than half the total population. Hugh Grosvenor (b. 1991), the 7th Duke of Westminster, with a fortune of more than £10 billion, is richer than the poorest 10%. When his father, the 6th Duke, died in 2016, his heirs paid little if any inheritance tax. Working-class people on the other hand, pay 40% inheritance taxes on estates over 325,000 pounds ($410,000). Considering that the average house in the U.K. costs about that, it’s clear there are few avenues for members of the British working class to amass significant wealth over time or the status that comes with it. They are locked into patterns of social and economic inequality that have existed for centuries. (The British bourgeoisie established an informal entente with the aristocracy in the late 17th century, as Tom Nairn long ago showed.)

Rishi Sunak promised to further increase social inequality, if not in so many words. To marginally reduce long waiting lists for non-emergency treatment by the National Health Service, Sunak promised to raise funds by skimming deadbeats and malingerers from welfares rolls. As Americans will know from the records of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the number of such people is negligible – not nearly enough to pay for major investments in the NHS or anything else. What Sunak really promised therefore, was to cut support for people who need it, thereby further impoverishing those already poor, and pushing still others into poverty. 22% of British citizens are currently living in poverty, including 30% of children.

Keir Starmer, according to the polls the most likely next PM, is less Scrooge-like. He didn’t endorse Sunak’s planned cuts to welfare, but neither did he effectively challenge them. He claimed to have a plan to reduce NHS waiting lists to restore people to health and help them “get off welfare” and enjoy “the dignity of work.” (Starmer has a fondness for Victorian bromides.) But he refuses to say how they will be paid for. Since he vows not to raise taxes, we must assume he plans to borrow the money he wants to spend. That’s fine, but he ought at least to say so.

Nations that print their own currency – like the U.S. and U.K. — do not have to raise taxes for every dollar they spend. They can borrow, or simply print more money. They don’t literally have to do so, of course; their central banks just create liabilities — reserve deposits — and use them to pay debt, purchase assets, or make investments. Governments can do this – up to a point – without triggering inflation. The moderately high inflation levels in the U.S. and U.K. following the Covid pandemic were mostly due to supply chain issues, the war in Ukraine, and price gouging, not economic stimulus programs. The U.K. stimulus was less robust than the American, allowing the former to fall into a period of recession in July 2023, followed by slow growth that is still ongoing. (Biden might have mentioned this in his debate last night, but a coherent discussion of that or anything else seemed beyond his capabilities.) And because the U.S. has a higher debt-to-GDP ratio than the U.K. (130% vs 97%) it’s clear that Starmer has some leeway to simply spend without raising taxes. But will he do so? His priggish manner suggests he thinks it profligate to “spend without paying for it”, even though such phrases are meaningless in the domain of macroeconomics. Besides, spending of the sort needed now in the U.K. is the type that should count on the credit rather than debit side of ledger books: It’s for things like health care, education and infrastructure, which make the economy more productive, increasing productivity, economic growth and national income.

So, what will Sunak or Starmer do when one of them becomes PM? We’ll have to wait until after election day (July 4) to find out.

The much worse, truly awful, cringe-worthy American debate

The American debate 24 hours later, which promised to be a cage fight between an octogenarian and a near octogenarian, turned out to be a slaughter: The criminally mendacious Trump, freed from the sanction of fact-checkers, easily beat the hapless president. Indeed, he demonstrated more strategic acumen than he ever did as president, refraining from directly pointing out Biden’s disabling senescence, and allowing the current president words to do it for him.

Despite this relative restraint, Trump did not, however, disappoint his most rabid supporters. He frothed and fumed and all but called Biden a murderer for allowing into the country an alien horde of “illegals”, released according to his telling, “from prisons, mental hospitals and insane asylums” to prey upon innocent, young girls. He described a near-daily massacre in American towns and cities because of the onslaught. Biden should have been able to deflect the blow and make his own counter-attack. It’s a well-established fact that immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than native-born Americans (60% lower) – this has been true for generations. But rather than rebut Trump’s slanderous charge, Biden inadvertently supported it himself by referring to a woman killed by an illegal immigrant! Biden also touted – vaguely, confusedly — his own new, “tough on immigrants” policies, and lamented that Congressional Republicans failed to support it.

To be sure, there is an immigrant crisis in the U.S., but not the one agreed by Trump and Biden: There’s not enough of them. Over the next decade, migrants (legal and illegal) are projected to add an additional $7 trillion to the U.S. economy. Without them, productivity and GDP will fall, the pool of Social Security and Medicare funds will shrink, and there will be critical shortages of workers in agriculture and health care. More than half of all U.S. farmworkers are immigrants, and nearly 17% work in the healthcare industry. Key sectors of the latter, like home health and rehabilitation – crucial for an aging population – would be especially badly impacted if immigration were slowed. Far from stealing jobs from Black people and Latinos, as Trump alleged, migrants to the U.S. provide low-cost services that poor and marginalized communities need in abundance.

Based upon their published programs and utterances last night, Trump and Biden largely agree. They aim to send asylum seekers and economic migrants alike to concentration camps in the Southwest, or holding areas in southern Mexico. In the U.K., Sunak wants to ship an annual 50,000 U.K. migrants to Rwanda in contravention of both U.K, and international law. Starmer wants to unleash MI5 on them, and smash “the cartels” that supposedly enable small boats with migrants to cross the channel. I half expected him to announce, a la Churchill, “we shall fight them on the beaches…”

An unfortunate point of U.S. and U.K. convergence

But I may be being too hard on Starmer and Biden. The question of immigration may simply not be debatable in either the U.S. or the U.K. currently. To really do so, would be to challenge sustaining myths – call it a dominant ideology — of national genius and white, racial superiority. Without the bugbear of illegal immigration, U.K. and U.S. citizens would have to face the sober facts of their own national diminishment. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the four “countries” that comprise the United Kingdom, are rump vestiges of a rapacious global empire; they will themselves soon spin off on their own way, creating separate, statelets that will try to rejoin the E.U.

The U.S. in the meanwhile, is one of those “failed states” that its diplomatic corps and military delight in first immiserating and then bombing. It is the world’s leading, per capita consumer of energy and producer of greenhouse gases. It has higher rates of infant mortality and premature death than most other nations in the Northern hemisphere (and some in the global South). It has lost every significant war it has fought for the 75 years, despite a military budget that is higher than that of every other country in the world combined. Whither the U.S. election? “Whither the U.S.?” is the better question.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at