Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There was Clearly Some Good in the SOTU, But Let's Look at the Bad and the Ugly

Most of the reviews of Obama's State of the Union address have been glowing with praise, describing it as boldly and unabashedly liberal.  I remain skeptical, however, and I know that, although a minority, I'm not alone in that belief.

There were many positive parts of it, such as Obama's call for climate change action, government investment to spur the economy along the lines of the American Jobs Act, gun control, and gender equity.  However, there is more value in engaging critically with the passages that merit attention because of their contradictions or limitations.

 “And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.”

This is logically unsound because it assumes a fixed pool of money that the government has from which to allocate to various programs.

“But we can't ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.”

Notice the importance of the word “entire.”  It implies, as I have explained before, that he still believes that working families and seniors have to undergo some suffering.

“They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share.” 

The President loves "fair share" rhetoric--probably because the word "fair" polls well.  However, the rhetoric is hollow.  I’m pretty certain that the CEO of Goldman Sachs and the person who got kicked out of her house because of a faulty mortgage are not and will not be required to suffer equally.  The concept of "fair share" is often both abstract and arbitrary.  At best, one could argue for its relevance in a discussion of taxes (and the fairness of the tax code), but not so much in terms of spending.  I doubt that corporate welfare will pass quickly, as the "fiscal cliff" deal so depressingly demonstrated.

“On Medicare, I'm prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”  
Simpson-Bowles is the darling of the Beltway media because of its purported "seriousness" and "bipartisanship."  However, a majority of the public does not even know what it is, so it's hardly a good political move to mention it.  Nor, for that matter, is Simpson-Bowles good policy.
“We'll ask….more from the wealthiest seniors."

In other words, the president wants means testing. In order to get savings through means testing, you would have to push the threshold down, and there would likely be a motivation to keep pushing it downward until eventually the program exists no more.  Moreover, means testing creates bureaucratic inefficiencies because the government has to determine who is eligible for benefits and who is not.  It makes a popular, universal program into a maze.

“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.” 

Tax reform always means cutting corporate taxes, something on which both Obama and Romney agreed.  And that's not likely to bring down the deficit.  Legitimate tax reform would have to entail proposals like Bernie Sanders's Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act, but we all know that's not going anywhere.

“So tonight, I'm announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of fifteen of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America.”

Only 15?  That's bold?

“We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years.”
This is meaningless. We do not control the price of oil, nor can we demand that what is produced here gets used here.  Oil prices remain high, so the boom has hardly benefited consumers even if it has greatly benefited oil companies.
Domestic production would only matter significantly in the determination of price and "energy independence" if oil production were nationalized.  Clearly, neither party is even considering that.  We all know how much the US loves the nationalization of oil.

“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.”

I’m certain McCain would filibuster his own bill if it were reintroduced verbatim.

These statements do not cohere:
(1) "But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change." 
(2) "...[M]y Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits." 
If climate change is as pressing as an issue as the President rightly acknowledges, then continuing the expansion of oil and natural gas drilling would be counterproductive.  Obama also has an abysmal record of protecting federal lands; even Dubya protected more than Obama has.

“If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we.”

Substance aside, this was the funniest line of the whole speech.

“And to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden, I'm also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children.”

Public-private partnerships tend to produce corruption. If private capital wanted to invest in infrastructure, it would be doing so. Moreover, privately-funded ports and roads will probably come with fees for use.

"But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the training to fill those jobs.  And that has to start at the earliest possible age...Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America."

First, as I will revisit again soon, I find the reduction of education to career building very problematic because it assumes that education must be tailored to the needs of employers rather than to broader humanistic and democratic goals.

However, more importantly, I am skeptical of the viability of the universal preschool plan--at least until more details appear.

In the SOTU, Obama claimed that nothing he proposed "will raise the deficit by a dime."  How, then, will universal pre-K be funded?  Will it be through a tax?  If so, on what?  If it will not be funded through a tax, then will the funding for pre-K detract from other programs?  Will the K-12 budget be reduced in order to add in some pre-K money? For universal pre-K to be effective, you would need to have very low student-teacher ratios and very highly-trained professionals in the classroom.  To be worthwhile, it will not and cannot be cheap.

Moreover, universal pre-K does not address the fundamental inequities in our education system.  As public schools receive much of their funds from property taxes, there exist wide gaps in quality between school districts.  The disparity between the Philadelphia school district and that of Lower Merion offers a perfect case study.  The affluent suburban school system of Lower Merion spends $15,484.33 per student, and over 93 percent of its plan to attend college. Philadelphia spends $6,335.26 per student, and only 49 percent of its students plan to attend college.  The disparities in the college rates reflect the economic inequality of school funding and also of the families themselves.  If preschools are funded as K-12 schools are now, the inequities will likely remain.  (And those inequalities are not just in the quality of the classroom, but the economic stability of the home and community--issues that often get tossed aside in discussions of education.)

However, that assumes that the preschools will be run within the public school system.  Will the President force states to expand charter preschools, putting the education of the very young in private hands with minimal accountability?  Will we start to see for-profit preschools, perhaps through the corporate partnerships the President loves?  How can we ensure accountability and quality if we do universal pre-K through vouchers as would be likely?
“We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” 

(1) Race to the Top has been no blessing for our public schools.

(2) I do not want private companies influencing public school curricula.  Public schools should be a haven from commercialism. Moreover, schools should not have to compete for funding.  The goal of the public education system should be that every child receives the best education possible; introducing competition creates inequities to compound upon those already existing.

(3) Schools should already have math and science classes. Does he want more at the cost of literature, history, foreign language, etc.? If we want to prepare for the “economy of the future,” we really need foreign language education, which schools have begun to drop over the past decade.

(4) One of my biggest pet peeves about how we discuss education policy in this country is the assumption that the purpose of our education system is to train people to be employees, rather than citizens. Now, there is value in encouraging high school students to explore vocations (defined broadly), however not if it comes at the sacrifice of the democratic ethos that underlies the American public school system.

“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally."

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

I've already expressed my concerns with the President's immigration plan. However, what’s especially galling is the “go to the back of the line, you undocumented workers” line paired with the “we need to open up to more engineers line.” "Go to the back, poor folks who are already here; we need to make room for the people we really want in our country."  Emphasizing only the immigrants who can boost corporate profits is a slap in the face of the great American poet Emma Lazarus.  Moreover, we are not lacking in highly-educated graduates in the country as it stands.

“Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”
In his 2008 campaign, he called for raising the minimum wage to $9.50 and indexing it to inflation. So, in other words, he hasn't moved forward, but backward.
“And this year, my Administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.”

Only 20?

“And we'll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood – because what makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child; it's having the courage to raise one.”

Does this mean anything other than job security?  If he were interested in encouraging responsible fatherhood in low-income communities, maybe he should think about ending the drug war.

“And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

We will still, however, have troops there. The US is that person who comes to the party uninvited and stays the longest. You ask him politely to leave, but he never takes a hint. You impolitely ask him to leave, and he doesn’t take a hint. He decides to move in with you and then pats himself on the back when he decides to leave.

“Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

In other words, the US will kill them with drones in clear violation of international law. The US will also kill civilians near them, such as those who try to come to their aid after they have been hit, and we might accidentally hit a wedding or some children. But trust us.

“As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
This passage is arguably even funnier than the one about trusting CEOs and retired generals.  The administration has not been open with Congress.  There was only talk about creating a set of rules for drone warfare when the White House feared an imminent Romney presidency.  Obama's record on transparency has hardly been admirable, and it's fairly easy to be "even more transparent" when your benchmark is practically zilch.

“Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.” 

"It would be dangerous if Country X got access to a nuclear weapon," says the only country reckless enough to have used one.

And the United States is hardly a model for disarmament.

“America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people's identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

That's why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.”

I worry that this will lead to more unjustly severe criminal prosecutions of people like Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning.

“To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

The TPP is an awful program that would give corporations the right to sue national governments in an external court if they thought their environmental and social protections were too strong. Free trade initiatives such as NAFTA have benefited neither the U.S. nor its partners.

“In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”

 What about the citizens in Saudi Arabia?  Or Bahrain?

“That's why, tonight, I'm announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I'm asking two long-time experts in the field, who've recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney's campaign, to lead it."

The goal of partisan experts is to game the system, not to fix it.  An election commission, to serve the interests of the democracy, should be nonpartisan.  If not nonpartisan, the commission should have to include all parties, not just the two major parties.  Obama's early appointees have not been promising.

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