Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Annotated SOTU Address: part I

I have taken parts of Obama's State of the Union Address and added some of my own commentary. There's a lot of stuff, so I cut out a bit, but didn't change anything. My comments are in red, the original in italics.

But there's a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater - something more consequential than party or political preference.

The only lesson to be learned from the Tucson shootings is that we all need tougher gun control. Obama makes no mention of gun control in this speech; in fact, I haven't heard him say anything on the issue.

We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer.

A major reason that corporate profits are up is because because employment is down. Many companies have laid off a large part of their workforce, and demanded that the remaining employees work harder. Benefits such as healthcare are vanishing. The quaint notion of a "pension" has all but disappeared, and the large corporations and their wealthy execs would like to see an end to Social Security and Medicare as well -- in exchange for very favorable tax cuts. Speaking of tax breaks: some of the costliest of these benefit precisely those large corporations -- big Oil and big Coal and big Agribusiness are prime examples -- which have lost their innovative cutting edge, but have gained great influence over politicians via their campaign contributions. I think it was Paul Krugman who recently pointed out that General Electric, a major war contractor, actually makes more of its money from its investment business than it does from producing and selling actual products. Most big companies like G.E. and I.B.M. have radically cut their funds for research and development.

Obama himself points this out here:

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.

America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.

I'm not so sure that the U.S. economy is still bigger than China's, not that that statistic is so important in itself. Out universities are still the best in the world, but that is not necessarily true of our elementary and high schools.

our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like "What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

After being a teacher for more that 40 years, I'm not so sure that this is still true: either that most students memorize equations or that they approach school with a creative questioning attitude.

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement."

I really hate this use of the word "future." The future is what is going to happen: you don't "win" it, and we will certainly, if we simply live, "get there." Couldn't we actually use language modestly, carefully, and logically?

None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do - what America does better than anyone - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living.

This is true, but it is only part of the picture. technical innovation has greatly raised the intellectual stakes. Simple reading and arithmetic -- hardly mastered by all of our students -- is not long sufficient to get the kind of jobs that provide a "middle-class" living standard. In fact, for the last 30 or more years of the Internet and fibre-optics and cellphones, the standard of living of most workers has, at best, remained level. Not since the days of the Robber Barons has the income and ownership gap between the rich and everyone else been so great. Here is a statistical breakdown.

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

Yes, and remember that the the government is us. We paid for this training. And what have we gotten for it? The Reaganites saying "government is the problem." Yes, a few companies have established training programs for their employees; some contributed (tax-deductible) endowments to colleges and universities. But they're not doing much to teach broad segments of the population how to read, write and learn. Some of their charter schools do an OK job, but these schools can weed out kids they don't like or who don't measure up. By and large corporate culture likes innovative patents, but not dreamers and non-conformists who do a lot of the innovation.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race.

The U.S. engaged in the Space Race and did a lot of other pro-science and pro-technology things about a half-century ago. Why? Because we were scared sh*tl*ss about the commies. Americans feared, distrusted and sneered at intellectuals about as much then as now. But, we couldn't afford to let the Soviets have more of them. Since the cold war ended, science is just another subject. The last generation of American physicists couldn't find research jobs when they finished grad school. A lot of them went to work on Wall Street and played a major role in creating financial derivatives and other exotic investment "instruments" -- an achievement that led to "the worst recession most of us have ever known" (see above).

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.

Right on. It's not just the oil companies of course, though we've known about their unnecessary subsidies for at least a half-century now.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Not so fast: what about making it less profitable for U.S. companies to outsource work to other countries. A lot of them get tax breaks for doing so.

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

Just as I said above. How exactly is this going to change? Less TV? I doubt that the networks are on board for that. Less educational TV? Not with conservatives wanting to cut public broadcasting. Is Fox going to underwrite the next Sesame Street? Not too likely.

You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.

Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

So let's break the teacher's unions and see if we can't get good teachers for less -- longer hours, fewer benefits, more kids in a class. Let's make them teach more religion (only Christianity though) and doctored history.

Where I live (and probably nearly everywhere) school budgets are being cut, not expanded, and teachers are being laid off. Idiot tax-cutters are cutting all over the place. Get real Obama. You have to declare political war on the folks who are doing this. How many Tea Screamers are pushing for higher taxes or more federal aid for education? How many Republicans for that matter?

I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit - worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Yeah, that $10,000 voucher will go a long way. It might have in the days when states could support affordable higher education for their citizens. Not anymore.

I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.

News flash: this is a non-starter for the Republicans: they've already said so.

Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.

Our last N Republican governors here in Massachusetts ran on a platform that included the assertion that the state had a budget surplus. This is the standard baloney for Republicans up and down all levels of government: we don't need the taxes we have -- there's simply no problem. Meanwhile, the bridges and tunnels and streets and schools fall apart.

We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians.

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.

Oh man, dream on. The Republicans won't even subsidize Amtrak. The T here in Massachusetts in underfunded and pathetic I know because I take it all the time; the concrete
steps to my local station have been dangerously rotted for years now, but no effective fix seems to be possible. Multiply that by about a few hundred thousand and you'll see the enormity of just the "access to facilities" problem.

For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. So tonight, I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field.

I'm on board with this. Of course the lobbyists aren't. People would know about this if they took the civics courses that should have been taught in their schools -- but weren't.

To reduce barriers to growth and investment, I've ordered a review of government regulations. When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That's what we've done in this country for more than a century. It's why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe. It's why we have speed limits and child labor laws. It's why last year, we put in place consumer protections against hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies, and new rules to prevent another financial crisis. And it's why we passed reform that finally prevents the health insurance industry from exploiting patients.

Another excellent point worth mentioning. But, it has to be repeated over and over and become part of the Democratic mantra. It's the Republicans that don't want to pay to have our medicines and food inspected. You know: "government is part of the problem."

What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

As we speak, this law is making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors and giving uninsured students a chance to stay on their parents' coverage. So instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward.

OK. We now know that most people support most of the actual provisions of the Health Care Bill, though they still say they don't like the bill itself. Obama has to keep working on this.

But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.

Maybe we can't sustain a total deficit of the current magnitude, but that doesn't mean we can's sustain any large deficit. This has been analyzed time and time again by economists. We have this huge deficit because we have refused to pay for wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. The deficit didn't cause our current recession and so far has not exacerbated it. "Full" employment (less that 5% unemployment according to many economists) will help a great deal to reduce the deficit. And it may take more "pump-priming" in order to reduce unemployment. Taxing Wall Street speculators, who serve no useful function, can help. So can healthcare reform. In fact, so can just about anything that Republicans don't want to see. There is not once scintilla of evidence that tax-cuts for the wealthy will help drive down the deficit or reduce unemployment. As I've said in a previous blog, the conservative economic policy has been tried over and over and has been found wanting.

So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

This is pure politics. Obama clearly thinks that his popularity and that of his party will increase if he is seen embracing Republican economics. But, it's all baloney and will certainly cause mischief.

This freeze will require painful cuts. Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I've proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.

Bring the troops home now and shut down most of our overseas bases. Cut out a lot of military spending -- especially on junk that even the Pentagon doesn't want. Our military budget is bigger than the budgets of the next ten biggest-spending countries combined.

This is part I of the annotation. I'll work through some more after I'm through shoveling some more snow. I'll also work on whatever typos I didn't have time to correct.

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