Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union? Very Questionable

Some thoughts on the 2011 State of the Union Speech.

The best thing about it all was the change in the seating, which led to a more dignified and less partisan event (and also less political pep rally-like atmosphere, thank God).  I hope they never go back to the old way.  The Gifford tragedy has resulted in something good, thank goodness.

I thought that President Obama started off strong and ended up weak, which seems to me to be his pattern.  I was genuinely moved and inspired with the first, what, 10 or 15 minutes of his presentation.  By the end, I was wincing.

As is also his pattern, he tends to say the 'right' things in theory, but then often doesn't follow through in particulars.  His theme of our 'Sputnik moment' is quite true, but I don't think that the policies or measures he set forth are going to do the trick.  You can talk all you want about innovation and competitiveness as the key to economic growth, but if every new product or invention is sent offshore to be manufactured, then the majority of our citizens will not really benefit from it. 

The last thirty years of 'growth' have been a disaster for America, in that it was illusory and not true growth at all.  It was based primarily on debt and a 'casino' economy, with the mostly non-productive finance sector (along with the super rich in general) gobbling up whole portions of the nation's wealth, leaving the ordinary person slowly sinking below the waves of higher debt, lower wages or no job at all, little in the way of retirement and a housing crisis that has crippled people's wealth and mobility.

What in the President's proposals will change this?  Despite his boast of change, he has fundamentally left the financial sector to continues in its greedy ways, which is probably my primary grip with his first two years in office (seconded by his Bushian policies on Afghanistan and terrorism).  But I am encouraged by his rescue of GM and the auto industry (but even that was started by the Bush administration before him).  He is also making an effort to increase exports, which could go a long way toward resolving many of our problems.  Also, his clean energy policies are a step in the right direction, although I'm somewhat skeptical that reducing our reliance on foreign oil can be halted in this way, without a major increase through taxation on oil importation, which politically can't be done.  I don't see many people being able to afford a Volt or putting solar panels on their roofs in the near future.  And the high-speed rail, that just isn't going to happen.  I'd be happy for just regular old rail that runs regularly, on time, and where you actually need to go.  But that probably isn't going to happen either.

I remain quite skeptical as well about his education proposals.  Though well-intentioned, I'm not sure that increasing the number of young people going to college is the answer to our economic woes.  There is a natural limit to the number of kids you can graduate from college and have employed in good jobs.  Question: do all economically sound countries have a high percentage of college graduates?  I googled this and it turns out, at least in one study, that Russia, of all countries has the highest percentage of college graduates (Associates degree or higher) at 54%.  Not exactly a model of economic growth and sophistication, I'd say.  The U.S. is down the list at 40%.  But guess which economically strong countries rank below that?  Denmark for example, one of the strong albeit smaller economies, comes in at 32%.  Switzerland is at 31%.  Germany and France, two perennially strong European economies, come in WAY below that with 22 and 16%, respectively.  And last but not least, perhaps the strongest and fastest growing economy in South America, Brazil, graduates only 8% of their people from college.  In other words, it is not at all clear to me that a higher percentage of college graduates leads to a strong economy.

I've written before about a non-productive bubble growing in our higher education sector, and I still think that's the case.  And the same is true for health care.  Perhaps Obama is thinking that we can 'export' our higher education and health care to the rest of the world, by having the wealthy folks from all the growing economies in the rest of the world send their kids to be educated here and their sick to be cured here.  Is that true?  I don't know, maybe.  I've not seen any projections about it and I'd like to.

There was very little mention of our foreign wars in this speech.  Understandably, politically.  It would be like pointing to an infected pimple on one's face, when what you want to do is just ignore it and distract everyone from looking at it.  Unfortunately, our Middle Eastern Wars are there in plain sight for everyone to gaze upon in disgust.  And there was of course no mention of real defense cuts.  That is an abomination.  There is no way we're going to solve our huge debt problems through domestic discretionary spending.  Period.  The libertarians and progressives are correct about that.

Maybe we can muddle through the next thirty years on huge military/intelligence expenditures, clean energy expenditures, and a bloated health care and higher education industries.  But frankly, I doubt it.  I think our economic woes are going to come back and bite us in the arse, through a monetary/debt crisis, continued high unemployment and rising poverty, private and public bankruptcies, a continuing housing crisis, increasing commodity/consumer goods inflation, a possible military confrontation with China, and worst of all, a possible BIG terrorist incident in one of our cities, which will turn America into an armed camp and would mean the real loss of our liberty, perhaps forever.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but that just seems to me to be the more likely outcome.  I hope Obama's right, but I fear that I am.

Ps.  As I read other reactions to the speech on the net, I realize more what a political speech this was, that is, it really wasn't serious policy-wise (because very few of his proposals will get through Congress) but he fundamentally wanted to make Americans feel good, hopeful, etc.  But that isn't what we really need to solve our problems, I don't think.  It's more just 'feel good' sentimentality.

But it may help Obama get reelected.  Which may well have been the primary purpose of the speech, given the paralyzed state of our politics and the unlikihood of accomplishing anything in the next two years legislatively.  He made the Republicans in the House look like reactionary accountants.  It was a VERY effective speech in that regard. 

By the way, don't you think Weeper John Boehner looked out of place in the Speaker's chair behind Obama?  He'd make a very good car dealership owner (no offense to car dealers).

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