Thursday, January 26, 2012

State Of The Union, 2012

It took me a couple of days to put my thoughts together on this because, for one thing, I kept finding myself becoming a bit overheated. I try not to write here when I’m agitated, so I had to step back from time to time and regain my objectivity. Yes, I actually did say that. If you think what I write here is, um, a bit heated at times, you should see what I decide not to post.

I fell asleep several times during the actual event, so I had to rely on a transcript, which you can use to follow along. He actually did make some pretty good points, and I will not skip over those when I get to them. I don't bash Obama for the fun of bashing him. I voted for him and I want to see that vote made good. He just keeps doing things that are in direct contradiction to the motivation for my vote.

He pretty much lost me with his opening statement. In 2003 he was referring to Iraq as a “dumb war.” In his 2008 campaign he was calling it “the wrong war.” Now he is claiming that it has “made America safer and more respected around the world.” How he can imagine or pretend that it has done either of those two things is beyond my comprehension, and by beginning that little fable with a recitation of his trip to Andrews AFB to “welcome home some of the last troops” he tries to establish his connection with ending that war, which is a flat out lie. That war ended on precisely the schedule laid out by George W. Bush before he left office. In fact, Obama tried to negotiate an extension of our military presence in Iraq, and upon failing to do so claimed the withdrawal date as his own accomplishment.

On Economic Growth

He first talks about “when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” Ah, yes, the miraculous economic boom following World War 2 and, “if we did it then we can do it again.” Paul Krugman sings that song, too. Of course back then returning combat veterans comprised about 14% of the population, while today they comprise about one tenth of one percent.

The larger difference is that back then we didn’t have any competition, because we had just spent four years bombing it into rubble. This time we have rather stupidly bombed Iraq and Afghanistan into rubble, and they were not our competitors. Our competitors we left fully intact, making consumer goods and high tech goodies while we focused on making instruments of war with which to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan into rubble. So sadly, no, we certainly can do a lot better than we’re doing but we can’t do the 1950’s and 60’s again. I’m not sure that bombing India, China and South Korea into rubble is a good idea.

I’m leaving out the “great country” and “keeping promises” cheerleading, which will shorten the discussion quite a lot, but I will take a quick look at how effective he is at bullshitting by telling the truth, that is spreading manure by stating facts which are entirely accurate.

“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.”

Opponents are claiming that his statement is untrue because a) there weren’t that many jobs created and b) he’s claiming credit for jobs he didn’t create. The first is crap, there were 3.16 million jobs created in the private sector in that time period, so he’s actually understating the facts. The second is idiotic: he does not claim, even by implication, that he or his policies created those jobs. It is a nice clean statement of fact and, even as he made the statement, I had not doubt as to its truthfulness.

It is, however, manure because the work force is also growing, and because of that and the low number of new jobs the portion of people in the work force who are actually employed is essentially unchanged since the worst of the latest recession, with participation having increased by only 0.3% since that time. That means that if you are of working age your chance of getting a job are no better now than they were in 2008.

“Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion.”

Well, yes, but that’s in ten years, not one. With a current deficit of $1.4 trillion, that means we’ve reduced the deficit by a whopping 15% so far. So in the next ten years the increase in the debt will be $12 trillion instead of $14 trillion. Are you properly impressed?

“And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like that never happens again.”

Except that the people who wrote the legislation and economic experts who review the effectiveness of it disagree wildly on just how much it prevents future crisis, and the banks that were “too big to fail” then are even bigger now than they were then.

He embarks on an almost orgasmic paean about the auto industry, excitedly says that “the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs,” and winds up with a triumphant, “the American auto industry is back.”

Well, adding 160,000 jobs in a couple of years is not to be sneered at, for sure, but it’s somewhat less than overwhelming given that we need to add 200,000 jobs per month in this country merely to keep up with population growth. And saying that the industry “is back” at this point is sort of like saying that the 49ers have won the game when they score a touchdown in the first quarter. The auto industry may be "back," and I hope it is, but it’s a little early to be beating victory drums.

Then he gets to the part about restoring American manufacturing and, as I feared would be the case, the first thing he brings up is taxes. After saying that companies “get tax cuts for moving jobs and profits overseas,” the next thing that he says is, “companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world.”

Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, of course, from about 600 Republicans for the last dozen years or so. Did we really elect a Democratic president to spout Republican slogans at us? Yes, I believe we did, because he goes on, “if you’re an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut. If you’re a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making products here.” Tax cuts for businesses! What a novel idea. It’s amazing that some Republican hasn’t already proposed that. Oh, wait…

He doesn’t give any real details on his “bipartisan trade agreements,” and it’s probably in the best interests of his reelection chances that he doesn’t. He describes them as creating “millions of new customers for American goods,” but he leaves out the “trade” part where they create millions of American customers for foreign goods, and thereby millions of foreign jobs making those goods. I don’t know if you remember Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound” in the NAFTA debate.

The we have the quintessential “Americana moment” with the blushing laid off single mom in the audience, the community college, the magnanimous corporation opening a plant in a destitute village, the tuition getting paid, the wonderful job with laser technology due to “partnerships.” Applause all around. Close up camera shot of the single mom looking embarrassed and pleased. Happiness abounds.

It would have been, I think, a little more patriotic had he chosen an example using an American corporation rather than Siemens, which is a huge German company. That’s splitting hairs, perhaps, and it’s not all bad having foreign money paying American wages. Still, it would be a little better, I think, if he’d used an example where American labor was generating American profits and income tax revenue, rather than German profits.

And the idea of community colleges pairing with industry to train workers is a little on the trite side. Actually, it’s a lot on the trite side, since it’s been around since before Obama was born. I remember Jimmy Carter using it, and it never turns out to have any significant impact. We can always cite anecdotes of lack of worker skills, but the unemployment problem is not about lack of “skills and education.” We need something that addresses the central issues, not just tinkering around the edges with tired old cliches.

On Education

His section on education is about a fifteen minute continuous cliché, trying to pose education as a solution to the economic conditions that we presently face which is, at best, presenting a long term solution to a short term problem and at worst just sheer nonsense. Manufacturing jobs do not require a college education, and it’s questionable that they even require graduation from high school. He presents the same old generalities that he and his predecessors have presented a thousand times: give states more money for more teachers, require kids to stay in school, somehow create better teachers (magic!), tuition tax credits (tax cuts!), lower interest on student loans, lower tuition…

He does a few of what I call his “specialty statements,” which are saying things that sound really good but, when broken down and examined carefully, make absolutely no sense. “States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.” Really? Higher than what? California, for instance, is cutting their programs for food assistance, and all but eliminating their in-home health care programs for the elderly, so what else should we cut in order to fund universities?

What he’s really saying, of course, is that education is so important that the federal government is going to do a lot of talking and mandating but is not paying for any of it and that it is up to the states to foot the bill.

“So let me put colleges and universities on notice:” he says, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” What does that mean and how, precisely, does that help young people obtain college educations? I suppose that he is in some manner demonstrating how “tough” he can be, but I don’t see how he is helping anyone with that kind of statement. Why is everyone cheering as he threatens to cut funding to higher education?

On Immigration

He got particularly dishonest in immigration, and it was the first time that I caught him in an actual lie. After saying that he “put more boots on the border than ever before,” he then makes the totally untrue statement, “That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.”

No, the main reason is that our economy crashed as he was taking office and there are fewer jobs to be had in this country, and so fewer people are crossing illegally in pursuit of those jobs.

After castigating Congress for not tackling immigration reform, he than says, “let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.” This from the head of an administration which is arresting and deporting undocumented workers at a rate far exceeding any previous administration.

Understandably, he did not dwell on this topic very long.

On Energy

The first thing he did in his discussion on energy was “open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” Are you kidding me? Just twenty months after Deepwater Horizon, and in the face of disastrous evidence of a dangerously warming planet, he authorizes an enormous amount of new offshore drilling.

He then touts our natural gas reserves, another environmental disaster in the making, and makes shale gas and its extraction sound like one of the best things to happen since the initial discovery of oil. He will require drillers on public lands to “disclose the chemicals" they use, but does not say that there will be limitations on those chemicals, so the only difference is that now you will know what is poisoning you instead of having to wonder. Drillers on private lands, which is much of the country is most of them, are not affected by the requirement and can continue to poison us with unknown chemicals.

He waxes at some length about “clean energy” and “executive orders,” but we are left mostly uninformed as to what the hell he’s talking about. The Navy is going to buy enough clean energy to power a quarter million homes. Does that clean energy come in buckets? In barrels? Do they ship it in tankers? Or is it boxed so that it can be shipped by truck? Over what period of time are they going to make this purchase, and what are they going to do with it?

“I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.” Um, what?

On Infrastructure

Okay, Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, forefathers, all that good stuff, and then this from total lala land,

“Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”

Dude, the money we are “spending at war” is all borrowed money. We can’t “use half of it to pay down the debt” for heaven’s sake, because you cannot pay down debt with borrowed money. Good God, does he think we are totally stupid? Well, that was a dumb question, because of course he does.

“Now is a really good time to build,” apparently because there are lots of unemployed construction workers. That would be a good reason if the purpose of building was to provide jobs. Building is desperately needed and I’m not arguing with his statement, I just have an issue with his reason.

I think he could have spent more time in this topic than he did. I believe the American Society of Civil Engineers would agree with me.

On Financial Reform

Financial reform starts with, oh no, here comes “mortgage relief.” You know what, I can’t “save $3000 a year by refinancing my home at historically low rates” because I already have that low rate which I got it when I bought the house many years ago and I never refinanced with the fancy “get rich quick” schemes that mortgage companies have been offering me all these years.

But my car is worth less than it was when I bought it. In fact, it is worth less than I owe on it. Why is Obama not offering to “forgive” my car loan? Come on man, I didn’t know the car’s value would go down. I didn’t understand things like that I would have to pay, you know, interest on that loan. I thought that if the car broke down I could stop making payments. Why isn’t he offering to cancel my car loan? I thought that in this country if I did something stupid that the government would bail me out of the situation I got myself into. (That was snark. The only debt we have is our home loan.)

Here’s one of his “specialty statements," “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.” Did you follow the thread that brought us here?

First an admission that, “…mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them.” Then we have, “…the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates.” That’s on the mortgage that they couldn’t afford and/or couldn’t understand, but which they undertook anyway, and that is a policy of “no bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.” Right.

He does a really clever thing with spilled oil and spilled milk and his feelings about regulations. That’s “eliminating burdensome regulations that hamstring businesses,” which is another popular Republican theme from a Democratic president. Yes, he manages to work in a reference to “crying over spilled milk.” He mentions the “Gulf two years ago,” but does not connect that to his earlier declaration of opening up “more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” Of course he doesn’t.

We then reached another moment when I actually sat up and listened as he expounded at some length about financial regulation and investigation of financial wrong doing. Some of it requires Congressional action, which we all know won’t happen, but I respect and appreciate that he called for specific action by Congress. The part of it which had to do with executive action sounded good, but it is so disparate from his past action and his unbroken record of “looking forward not back” that I am more than a little bit skeptical. I like it, but I'll believe it when I see it.

On Taxes

On taxes, Obama is almost 100% Republican, starting by saying that the “most immediate priority is stopping a tax hike.” Never before Obama have I seen a Democrat refer to the expiration of a tax cut as a “tax hike.” Republicans have been doing it for years as an underhanded method of popularizing renewals of their tax cuts, but since Democrats are not generally associated with tax cuts they have never really needed to engage in this particular form of deception. Obama is all tax cuts all the time, and he is dead set to renew his pet tax cut right now, and so we have this rhetoric of “stopping a tax hike.”

He then goes into a very lengthy and heartfelt dissertation about “$1 trillion per year on tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.” It’s hard for me to describe how much this frustrates me, not because of the subject itself, but because it is so freaking trivial and distracting. No, it is not “class warfare,” and yes, the wealthy should absolutely pay more taxes than they do, but to keep harping on this subject is something on the order of the Captain of the Titanic complaining about the arrangement of the freaking deck chairs.

If the amount is correct, and I rather question that it is, then correction of the problem would eliminate less than 8% of our deficit, even assuming that the deficit is our largest problem in the first place, which it is not. If we restored the economy it would eliminate about half of our deficit, and if we got health care costs, not health insurance, but health care costs, under control we would have a federal budget surplus. The trivial amount of tax which is not paid by the rich is not worth the time we spend discussing it, and it is time that we do not spend discussing things that really do matter.

Getting the economy back on track matters, and we are not going to do that by making the rich pay a little bit more of their income in the form of taxes. Getting the cost of health care under control matters, and the tax rate paid by the rich has nothing whatever to do with that. Neither does health insurance, which doesn’t generate health care costs, it pays those costs. Health care costs are generated by drug companies, hospitals, medical labs, and associations of doctors. We don’t even talk about those things at all, we barely talk about real means of restoring the economy, and instead we blow a lot of hot air about whether rich people pay enough taxes.

On Congress

He launches an attack on Congress; slamming their insider trading in the stock market, legislating favorably for companies whose stock they own, campaign contribution bundling, lobbying and the filibuster.

All well and good, I despise Congress as much as anybody, but we can’t vote for Congress to replace the President, so he’s wasting his breath here. He needs to campaign against some Republican to be named later, not against Congress.

He tries to be fair by adding the, “The executive branch also needs to change. Too often, it's inefficient, outdated, and remote,” but it’s less than a home run because he left out “corrupt.” He asks Congress for authority to change the executive branch, which is a bit of a farce since he didn’t think he needed permission from Congress to start a war in Libya.

After pissing off John McCain and Eric Cantor almost continuously for more than an hour, he declaims that we need to “end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction.” I’m pretty sure that elegant piece of rhetoric did not come from the Dale Carnegie course on “How To Win Friends and Influence People.”

On Foreign Policy

I’ve never bought into the nonsense that Obama’s foreign policy was “apologist” or any of the similar criticism, but it has seemed to me that it lacked any clear overall pattern. His policy has appeared to be one of reacting to the conditions of the moment. After this speech I’m not sure that even he knows what his policy is, that he has an overall policy at all, or that he even knows what is going on in the world or even in his own Cabinet.

As to Al Queda, he tells us that what remains of them are “scrambling” and know that they can’t hide from us. Once again he is not on the same page as his Secretary of Defense, who tells us that there are still a lot of them, they are almost everywhere “out there,” and that they are still very dangerous. Panetta’s “so we need to spend lots of money on weapons” is unstated but clearly implied, as is Obama’s “I killed Bin Laden so you need to reelect me."

Obama has a tough job here, because he wants to claim credit for winning wars, but he also wants to keep the voters afraid of ongoing threats, so he has to walk a tightrope. If all the wars are won, voters might feel free to dump him and he won’t have the “I can keep you safe” lever to pull, but if he overdoes the threat he might convey the message that he hasn’t done a very good job of keeping us safe. So he goes all passive mode and says “wars have been won,” but throws the Iran nuclear threat in there at the end.

“Through the power of our diplomacy,” he says, “a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran's nuclear program now stands as one.”

Well, sure, if you ignore China, Japan and India, all of whom are still buying oil from Iran and have clearly stated that they have every intention of continuing to do so, and Russia, which has said that it has reached its limit on sanctions and will not go along with any more. I sometimes wonder who is advising Obama, or if anyone is.

You also need to deny the evidence that Israel is going to throw a huge load of grits into the fan by launching an attack on Iran before the end of 2012.

Other than that, yes indeed, the world “stands as one.” That’s almost as delusional as taking half the money we no longer spend on war and using it to pay down the debt.

He says that “Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever.” Which sort of overlooks the minor detail that their economies are on the verge of collapse.

He claims that “Our iron-clad commitment -- and I mean iron-clad -- to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history,” which is just weird. We had a joint military exercise scheduled recently, but cancelled it when Iran threatened to close Hormuz, but other than that, what “military cooperation” is he talking about?

“We've made it clear that America is a Pacific power,” he says. Yeah, by stationing 2500 Marines, ground troops, in Australia. Marines are pretty awesome troops, but I don’t think that 2500 of them constitutes a “Pacific power.” Yes, I know we have vast numbers of forces in the Pacific, but this is the only addition Obama has made that can be seen to justify his “we have made clear.”

He says that across the world “opinions of America are higher than they've been in years,” and that “as long as I'm president, I intend to keep it that way.” The first part is true and I won’t argue the second because I can’t read his mind. There is evidence, however, that he is not accomplishing that goal. Worldwide opinion of this nation went up when Obama was elected merely because we elected him or, more likely, because we got rid of George W. Bush. Since he has been in office, unfortunately, world opinion has been dropping again, because Obama has turned out to be just about as much of an imperialist as Bush was.

On Defense

His spending plan of “a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget” remains intact. The “saving half a trillion dollars” is infuriating.

First, that’s in ten years, not one, so it’s a very, very small fraction of what we spend on war material. And it is not a reduction in spending, it is a reduction in the rate of increase in spending, because the cut is not from the current budget, it’s from projected future budgets. If spending which was budgeted to grow at 4% is altered to grow at only 3% have you “reduced spending” by any amount at all? No, you are still increasing spending, you are just doing it a bit more slowly.

How much money do you “save” by increasing your spending more slowly? Well, that’s a philosophical question related to asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Then answer doesn’t matter. What matters is that the policy requires tax increases.

All in all, this was one of his most forgettable speeches.

1 comment:

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