Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SOTU DC Exile Edition

On the day of President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, I thought it would be a worthy (and self-indulgent) exercise to give my own SOTU. I also thought it would be a fitting end to a self-imposed hiatus. For you the reader that means a lengthy post talking about topics varied and diffuse. Enjoy. Or don’t.

My fellow Americans (and our small but loyal international readership) the state of the Union is shaky at best. We remain embroiled in two wars. Guantanamo Bay is still open and synonymous with punishment and shame. Our economy, no longer perched at the precipice of the cliff, remains inches from the edge of a calamitous fall. We don’t have global understanding on climate change. China has reasserted its most authoritative prerogatives. Radical Islam remains a virulent opponent of our version of liberty. These are the exogenous problems we face as a nation, and yet I believe they are not the worst problems we face. They are the by-products, the outcomes, of our own governmental dysfunction.

We face an extreme right movement that foments, indeed breeds on, fear, misinformation, and disdain for their fellow Americans. We face a loyal opposition held hostage by this movement that ignores reason, rejects or contorts facts, rendering impotent those of the opposition that would be guided by their better angels. We face a majority, in turn, held hostage by the “moderates” of their ilk, leaderless, lacking a uniformity of voice in change. Faced with this political environment with an opposition kowtowed by its own fringes and a majority crippled by its own ineffectual leadership, the work of the government has ground to a halt. The air of debate is noxious with claims, counterclaims, elusive facts, and putrid lies. What are we as a nation to do?

To the Democrats, and specifically President Obama, I implore you to lead. Two million people didn’t descend onto America’s front lawn last January to see such dithering one year on. They connected with a message of change and the majority of Americans are still hungry for change. The problem is that they haven’t seen any change. My critics will say that I’m wrong. That America has changed and that people want the change to stop, but that is nonsense. In an attempt to foster bi-partisanship the president and the leadership of his party has conceded time and again.

If you’re a Democrat, stop apologizing for that fact. If you believe 46 million of your countrymen and women that don’t have health insurance deserve it then say so and say it proudly. The Democrats have taken up a defensive posture demonstrated by the sound bite ready, but policy ridiculous spending freeze. I’ve been told that’s what you have to do to remain in power, but I challenge that notion. Leadership is how you remain in power. Sharing your ideas and your evidence with the electorate is how you remain in power. This leadership has to begin at the top. Talk straight with the American people. Advocate for tough policy choices and defend those choices as a matter of necessity and common sense.

To the Republicans, I implore you to come out from under the heel of the most venomous of those that lie along your fringes. The party of Lincoln has become the party of Limbaugh and Beck. You have a responsibility to this epublic to provide an opposition, but you also have an obligation to confront the misinformation that limits your own policy options. That confrontation shouldn’t take the form of a Friday evening press release. It should be a full-throated refutation of blatant lies, whether voiced by your opponents or members of your own camp.

If you are a Republican, come to the table in good faith and with new ideas. Your party has perfected obstructionism to the detriment of discourse. The American people deserve a proper discourse based in facts, over ideas, without deliberate misinformation. If elected members of your party do not agree with that statement then perhaps you should consider if they should be a part of your party.

That’s my wish list for the two primary political parties in America. That’s what I want to see from them, because neither party is doing much to govern America. What do I want to see from our elected officials on a national level this year (beyond, you know, action)? Here’s my policy wishlist:

· Pass healthcare reform, not so Dems can get a victory, not so Repos can suffer a defeat, but because 46 million Americans don’t have health insurance and the Senate version of the bill, rooted in private insurance models, would help a great majority of those Americans to be insured.

· For the next two years let the budget deficit be damned. We need to spend money in this country to restart the economy and while we might have avoided the worst, we still face over 10% unemployment. Hand wringing over the debt that is held and will need to be held by China is misguided. Yes, they hold a lot of our debt, but that is largely inconsequential because 1) the yuan is still pegged to the dollar and 2) they need us to buy their stuff to keep growing.

· Regulate the financial industry. I don’t know what this looks like but when banks becomes “too big to fail” we have to consider if that means they’re too big to exist in their present form. Government intervention is required for regulation because government intervention was required to bail out the unregulated.

· Continue the drawdown in Iraq while taking one last shot in Afghanistan. We have liberated Iraq and have done much to help them rebuild their nation. Most international affairs analysts would agree that a measure of victory has been achieved, so let’s get the hell out. Perhaps I’ll sound a bit jingoist, but leave Iraq to the Iraqis. In Afghanistan, this current surge should be our last shot at nation-building in the country. If we fail to gain traction with this attempt then our mission focus should be building strategic tribal alliances to more effectively facilitate the prosecution of small scale incursions against groups actively seeking to harm the United States.

· Continue reaching out to the less-hardened of our enemies. President Obama has done much to spread a message of respect for the rest of the world, including some of our traditional adversaries. He has been criticized because this has not paid immediate dividends. Diplomacy doesn’t work like combat. We took Baghdad inside of a week, but it has taken years to restore our image in the rest of the world to be considered a good faith partner. The pay offs will come with time. I’ll use a metaphor as we enter Super Bowl hype time. If you run your halfback off tackle and he’s stopped at the line, you don’t burn the play and never use it again. You come back to that play time and again because you know it will work with time.

These are five real goals our government can accomplish within the next year. They are goals that could find broad support in spirit and vigorous, respectful debate in application. All of us, all Americans, all global citizens need to approach the myriad of external problems we face without the internal rancor that has defined us. We have a responsibility to be reasoned in our opinions, respectful in our tone, and honest in our facts. In the face of those that would not abide be these tenets, we must be diligent and clear of mission to disregard those that would determine only to derail advancement. This is our obligation to the republic and to the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our Union is shaky at best, but the hands to secure its foundations are our own. The ideas that move us forward lie in our minds. The regard and respect for dissent is in our hearts. We can rally around what binds us or fracture at what divides us. Perhaps now, more than at any point in our history (save the Revolution and the Civil War) does our Union appear so strained and tenuous. Yet, our nation has witnessed a great many rebirths before. The moment is ours to share in triumph or lament in division and defeat.

So there you that it. My SOTU for what it’s worth. I welcome comments (Colin), and I’ll get out ahead of the first one. Every one of my policy recommendations is basically already a recommendation of the Democratic party. I am a Democrat, but I also think those prescriptions are right. If you disagree, tell me why.


Nick C. said...

As always I have a one-track mind so:

I agree with your China comment about US debt holdings but what is this about reasserting their most authoritative impulses? Sure they are controlling info, but still nothing like it was...

-Nick C.

Jason said...

That statement could be a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, but my notion there was China's response to Google and the recent cyber attacks launched against US companies. China is asserting itself in strange and unproductive ways.

Colin said...

There's a lot of ground to cover here but I'll to be as succinct as possible:

Regarding the actual state of the union, I don't think it's that bad. We're not threatening to splinter into a thousand pieces. If you think things are bad now, think back a mere 50 years ago, when citizens were denied their full rights and political disputes were often settled at the barrel of a gun. JFK shot. MLK shot. RFK shot. George Wallace shot. Malcolm X. Things arguably didn't calm down until the early 80s with Reagan's shooting.

I'll take what we've got now over the gas lines, defeat in Vietnam, White House scandal and misery index of the 1970s too.

On the foreign affairs front, I'll take a China which denies internet to their citizens over one that kills them by the millions as in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Al Qaeda is a nuisance, and small potatoes compared to the fascists and commies. Frankly I think OVER-reaction to AQ is one of our biggest problems.

As for the Republican party and disinformation, nastiness, etc. -- a couple points. First, have you checked out what Democrats and various leading liberal voices have been saying? We have Rep. Alan Grayson stating that the GOP plan on health care is for people to "die quickly." Keith Olberman's rants typically make whatever comments Glenn Beck (in fairness I have never watched Beck so I am not totally plugged in there) or Rush Limbaugh make pale in comparison. Want to talk about disinformation? How about flyers distributed in the MA race which accused Scott Brown of opposing hospital care for rape victims.

And this isn't new. I can remember in the mid-1990s watching a Democrat congressman accusing Republicans of forcing old people to dine on dog food due to budget cuts. Another, as I recall, in speaking about Republicans stated "I fought these people in WWII" (he was in the European theater). Hell, I can recall a mere 5 years ago attending protests where Bush was equated with Hitler.

As for a bipartisan consensus on health care, it seems to me Democrats are far more interested in Republican votes than their ideas. Interstate competition in health insurance, for example, would cost absolutely zilch and would drive down prices. It's not on the table, why?

Frankly I see bipartisan agreement here as pointless. Both parties have views which are diametrically opposed, where is the common ground? I think too many people are obsessed with bipartisanship. Legislation doesn't suddenly become worthwhile because some people from the opposite party signed on.

As for the Democrats' lack of success on health care, I think there are two possible explanations: health care is awesome and people don't get it, or people do get it and just don't like it. It is unsurprising many Democrats are embracing the former, as the latter means conceding most Americans aren't on board with liberal ideas. Even if the problem is messaging, what is the solution? Even more Obama media appearances? Even more townhalls? Broadcasting negotiations on C-Spain certainly isn't on the agenda.

With regard to deficit spending, this is nothing more than misguided Keynesianism. Having the government spend money is taking money out of one pocket and placing it in the other. It's simply taking money out of the economy and placing it back in, except with a great deal of inefficiency added. And who is more likely to place money to good use, a politician or a capitalist? Capitalists profit from putting their money to good use. Politicians win by pleasing the right constituencies.

Colin said...

Furthermore, government does not have access to some vast pile of money that it can dole out in times of trouble. There is no vault full of gold coins that Ben Bernanke can go swimming in a la Scrooge McDuck. We are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole with absolutely nothing to show for it.

While it is an article of faith in liberal circles that regulation is good, there is no reason to think that more regulation is the cure for what ails our financial sector. Indeed, those sectors of the economy which function best tend to be less regulated while those most dysfunctional -- such as health care and finance -- are among the most regulated.

In order to fix the economy, Washington needs to get out of the way. It is already scaring business owners through legislation such as health care, cap and trade and various other rules large and small. Why would anyone expand hiring in such an environment. You don't tax or regulate your way to prosperity. Whatever the US suffers from, a lack of rules is not it.

Colin said...

Well, my attempt at being succinct certainly failed.

JuanCarlos said...

Colin - When you write that "It is unsurprising many Democrats are embracing the former, as the latter means conceding most Americans aren't on board with liberal ideas," I chuckle a bit. It seems that you're implying that Dems need to just come to grips with the fact that Americans just don't want this silly little liberal non-sense called health care, or more specifically, government-supported health care and/or reforms that make health care accessible and affordable for all. The truth is that those who can afford it and have access to it (not denied or cut off from health insurance or care based on pre-existing conditions, job loss, new condition, runny nose, etc.) have no problem ranting about the inefficiency and high costs of reforms (i.e. silly liberalism). That other small (sarcasm) group of Americans who don't have access or means to afford health care PLUS the small group of people that think ALL Americans should have access to affordable health care do buy into those crazy liberal ideas. And oh yeah, those two groups combined make up the majority of this country.

And I'll just have to respectfully disagree with your last paragraph but that's just a difference in opinion. But I continue to be surprised at how much faith some of us put in 'capitalists' in the US. Not that there's any reason to argue against their extremely efficient and responsible use of OUR money. Ohh, wait...

Jason said...

Colin - All your comments boil down to two things:
1) There is no common ground so why try to find it?
2) Capitalism always works.

To the first point, that's just sad. Is that not the point of a democracy to reasonable debate issues and find common ground? Also, do to the dawning of a required super-majority in the Senate to get anything passed, we can't simply cram down a partisan bill.

To the second point, can you honestly believe it was not a failure of financial markets that precipitated the current recession? Banks over-leveraged assets in part because of lax government requirements regarding limits on leveraging. The financial industry created financial vehicles to specifically avoid regulation and the system crashed and crashed hard. Who came to the rescue? The government and taxpayers. So now, after this blatant evidence you are prepared with a straight face to say that Capitalists will fix it when in fact unregulated capitalists broke it? There's an obvious gap in logic there.

Colin said...

Juan Carlos --

Yes, most Americans are not on board with government-run health care. I don't even find that a controversial statement. Government-run health care failed in 1994. It's failing now. The opinion polls are terrible. The conclusion is rather inescapable.

Furthermore, I absolutely reject the notion that opposition to Democratic efforts to expand a failed health care paradigm -- namely, insurance -- can be equated with opposition to "health care." It's crazy.

I'm not opposed to health care. Is anyone really opposed to health care? I badly think the U.S. needs health care reform, I just think the current method is likely to produce an even worse situation. Real health care reform would involve removing the insane linkage between employment and health care and the overuse of insurance, which insulates consumers from prices and drives up costs. The reason both exist, btw, is because of government policy.

The solution to health care is to expand affordability. How does one do this? Capitalism. More precisely, choice and competition. It works everywhere it is tried. Lasik eye surgery, for example, has seen improved quality and lowered prices over the years. Coincidentally, or not, insurance doesn't cover Lasik and consumers seek out the best deal.

Here are other examples of genuine health care reform in case you are interested:

Your portrayal of capitalism, meanwhile, isn't capitalism as all. It's from people hijacking government to their own ends -- crony capitalism. If we followed a libertarian approach that promoted limited government corporations would enjoy far less influence. Corporations enjoying our money is a consequence of big government, not capitalism.

Colin said...

Yes, on a number of issues there is little common ground. That is, after all, why we have competing political parties. If there was much agreement we could have just one.

On occasion common ground can be found. A number of Republicans and Democrats think lifting the Cuba travel ban is a good idea. There are nascent signs of bipartisan agreement on marijuana legalization. Some Democrats appear open to the benefits of free trade.

But on the great issues of the day -- of which health care certainly is one -- the two sides have very, very different ideas where no common ground exists. On health care Democrats desire more government, something I find anathema. I'm willing to accept that, and for all of President Obama's faults one thing I have not accused him of is partisanship. The health care bill is bad because it is bad, not because Republicans have failed to sign on.

The notion of unregulated capitalism being at the heart of what precipitated the financial crisis, meanwhile, is mostly myth. In 2008 the financial sector faced more regulation than when Shrub took office (Sarbanes-Oxley anyone?). The Securities and Exchange Commission didn't suffer for money or personnel either:

The financial crisis occurred in large part because of credit agencies, who assigned good ratings to crappy investments. Why did that happen? Certainly not because of a lack of regulation, as the SEC tightly controls who qualifies as a rating agency:

Furthermore, bank regulators, especially with a rule that took effect on January 1, 2002, gave breaks on capital requirements to banks that held assets with AA and AAA ratings from credit rating agencies. In addition, statutes and rules require that mutual fund and money managers can only but those bonds assigned high ratings by the agencies.

So think about that: the government mandated that many financial organizations rely upon the grades given by the credit rating agencies and then even signed off on which CRAs were respectable. The CRAs then assigned excellent ratings to scores of financial products which were actually junk. Who in their right mind can believe the real problem here was insufficient regulation?

Lastly, to the extent deregulation occurred -- the repeal of Glass-Stegall -- there is good reason to think it played a positive role:

Your statement that "Banks over-leveraged assets in part because of lax government requirements regarding limits on leveraging" is revealing. How many people knew over-leveraging was a problem until it occurred? Regulators are not gifted a crystal ball which provide them unique insights into potential financial system weaknesses. Hindsight may be 20-20, but foresight is certainly less so.

I'd invite you to read this: