Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Annotated SOTU Address: Part II

Please note, again, that I have cut out some sections of Obama's speech that I didn't choose to comment on. The complete text can be found here. As before, the President's words are in italics, and my commentary is in red.

This means further reducing health care costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs, which is part of why nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit. Still, I'm willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.

The forecasts for savings from Obama's healthcare plan are not that firm. In the short term there may not be much, since there will be new enrollees with pre-existing conditions, most of whom will need subsidies. Cutting costs will be very tricky. Preventative medicine will help, and so will the requirement that insurers spend 80% of premiums on actual benefits. How much expense they can push onto hospitals and other providers is unclear. Eventually there will have to be a move to "the public option": either single-payer or Medicare buy-in.

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break.

These are closely related. The easiest SS fix is to collect FICA payments in the higher brackets. This is part of the need to tax the wealthy much more, since they have much higher disposible incomes.

It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success.

Bill Maher recently pointed out that the ever-popular (especially among macho types) National Football League is an prime example of what the Republicans hate: redistributing wealth. The NFL's main source of revenue is TV royalties. These are divided evenly amongst all the teams. Furthermore, speaking of "punishing success", the teams that have the worst season records get the top draft picks. Socialism really works for professional football, the same way government sponsored healthcare works for members of Congress.

In fact, the best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code.

"Simplifying the tax code" has long been a euphemism for "flat rate tax" in which everyone, rich or poor, pays the same rate. This really hammers people who have little disposable income, and, as always, would be a tremendous boon for the wealthy. For wage earners with few other sources of income or unusual tax breaks, the code is not all that complicated (assuming one has learned to read and do basic math).

Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.

Cute: what's not to like?

In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government. Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history. Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online. And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.

Fair enough. Of course, it's the Party for The Rich that tells us that our "government is the problem."

Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high.

This is a John Wayne line from another war. The war in Iraq was based on a lie, and continued mostly because it had begun. Brutal as Saddam was, the misery that has been caused for the Iraqi people as a result of our unilateral declaration of war on their government has surely been worse. Their country is still in ruins; hundreds of thousands have died and many more have been maimed. And for what exactly? This is surely not the fault of those service men and women who fought there, but their sacrifices could hardly have been based on a more dubious cause.

Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us.

We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear - by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Will we now do the same -- invade -- in Yemen and Pakistan and who knows where else al Qaeda may regroup?

American leadership can also be seen in the effort to secure the worst weapons of war. Because Republicans and Democrats approved the New START Treaty, far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed.

It was a close thing. The PTR (Party for The Rich, formerly GOP) was, of course, more interested at that time in securing their upper-class tax breaks.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

Is this supposed to suggest that we are the only democracy? Or that we are the only democracy with a decent standard of living? That would be nonsense. Perhaps it is merely suggesting that when the conditions of your life are OK you would rather not take the trouble to move -- away from family, friends and your native language. The suggestion that the U.S. is the "best" country is not as clear as it might have been a half century or more ago.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

So people who haven't "made it" haven't tried? Do we all believe this? OK, at one time, when most of the wealth in Europe, say, was inherited or stolen, America was THE land of opportunity. Things have changed, though. My father went to City College in New York, which at the time was free and one of the best colleges in the country. CCNY is no longer free and no longer one of the best (though it's still pretty good). Wages have been stagnant in the U.S. for 30 years or more. The gains of the labor movement have been eroded, and the protections of the New and Fair Deals and Great Society have been weakened. The U.S. trails a lot of the democratic (and undemocratic) countries of the world by many measures, though not in self-congratulatory talk of American exceptionalism. We have lost a lot by fighting too many wars that went unpaid for -- wars fed by our inflated image of ourselves and our virtue. Of course, Obama can't say this in public, but it's true nonetheless.

We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

It's also the country of wealth built on slavery and sweatshops and broken treaties with Native Americans. It's a country of gunboat diplomacy in the service of United Fruit. It is a country of Robber Barons, Wall Street fatcats, Big Coal, Big Oil, Enron and Big Bank speculators. It is now a country with an historically wide gulf between rich and poor, and with no political party firmly enough on the side of the non-rich to talk seriously about the problem.

This was, in many ways, not bad for a State Of The Union address -- better than the crap from Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. It actually had a few good parts. And, of course, we really can't expect a SOTU speech to be serious and penetrating -- our political culture simply doesn't allow for that. I would give Obama a gentleman's C except that Ivy League grade inflation has pushed this to an A- .

WTF ! (and I don't mean Win The Future).

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