Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More State of the Union Thoughts

Since President Obama's State of the Union address last week, I've been unsettled and vaguely uneasy, unable to put my finger on how he gets it wrong. I have no doubt that he gets it wrong, but exactly how?

From a comment thread at Majority Report Radio, one Kevin Baker responded to the State of the Union address. Since Kevin gets it exactly right (and expressed his desire to widely share his opinions) I am reproducing his comments below in their entirety. Thank you, Kevin--seriously--for articulating all those half-formed notions in my head in a coherent way (bolding is mine, not in original):

The real problem with Obama's speech tonight was, once again, the historical narrative that he led off with, and that he is determined to have us believe.

That is:

Once upon a time, Americans had all sorts of really good jobs because "they only had to maybe compete against their neighbor," and they could count on getting ahead if they worked hard, "and maybe even see life improve for their children."

But then "over the course of a single generation, came great technological changes." Steel mills "that had been employing thousands, now only needed hundreds of workers." Countries such as "China and India" started "making adjustments, and teaching their kids math."

Americans suddenly found themselves competing with the whole world, and that's been really tough, especially since our kids have gone from best-educated in the world to only ninth. But fear not. We "still have the best innovators in the world, the best colleges and universities. We still lead the rest of the world in patents." All it will take is a lot of education, a little social investment here and there, some strict budget-minding, and.voila! We'll beat anyone on this planet!


Well-intentioned though it may be, this whole narrative makes no sense on the face of it.

So, back in the good old days, we were the best at everything, but we did well only because "we just had to compete against our neighbors"?

Say what? Which is it? Were we the best, or were we not?

China and India sure did make changes. But of course the Chinese have been "teaching math" since long before the rest of the world knew the Americas existed, and didn't India invent it? Were the changes so much better education, or the fact that the two countries emerged first from under Western thumbs, and then from suffocating systems of caste and communism over the course of the last couple generations?

And how DID we fall behind? I mean, while still having the world's best universities, best innovators, most patents, etc.?

What Obama's pseudo-history conveniently ignores is that what really changed is not Chinese students buckling down to their algebra homework, or "sweeping technological changes in the course of a generation." What changed was government policy.

American workers have ALWAYS operated in times of rapid, sweeping technological change. They've ALWAYS competed with other countries, in one way or another. And they've generally done pretty well.

The reasons they did well included the fact that for most of our history, our government protected our industries against competition from countries with desperately underpaid labor. And because the people running the industries kept inventing new stuff, and ploughing money back into their American industries, instead of shipping their plants overseas and devoting all their time and capital to figuring out new financial Ponzi schemes.

Still, though, the old America that Barack Obama refers to used to be plagued by constant, wrenching depressions. And those old industries didn't necessarily help people make a good living, or improve their children's standard of living.

Being a steelworker, or an auto line worker, doesn't INHERENTLY pay well. In fact, for many decades, such jobs didn't pay much at all.

Then the people who did them organized themselves, and forced higher wages out of owners (who didn't have the option of searching out child slaves abroad), and elected representatives who defended and extended their rights.

THAT'S the "magic formula" that American prosperity came out of. Innovation, education, inventiveness-sure. But also industrial policy, unionism, protectionism, real patriotism, and all those other things that Barack Obama and the whole, lovely class he hails from don't want to hear about because they might chip away some small portion of their staggering wealth.

But without acknowledging that narrative-without letting that narrative guide our future actions, which is the whole reason to learn history in the first place-we'll just keep butting our heads against the wall.

We can make our kids do math problems until their fingers fray and they still won't be able to compete with sweatshop dictatorships where workers make 20 cents an hour.

We can talk all we want about making social investments.and they will never be made, as long as the financial oligarchy which has severed all bonds of loyalty to this nation continues to co-opt and buy off our leaders.

But hey, in the meantime, let's find common ground: fire all the teachers!



  1. I am sorry but Obama's spot on and you're living in the past. What people don't seem to want to deal with is times change. Steel mills don't pay much, but steel workers think they should work there for life without ever getting better educated or a different job. BTW my BIL is a steelworker, my dad was a teacher, my ma was a secretary, I know of which I speak. No policies can make the world stop spinning. You can't pick a point in time, especially when your 20, and expect to do that for 45 years and all is well. Sure its crap that we don't put same regulations on products built outside US as we do inside US, but a robot will replace the line workers, even if we never went to China. Thhose regs maybe delay but maybe but don't stop the momentum. Obama is right, look around the corner and find out where the world is heading and get our workforce there first, but once there you have to find the next place we're going. Math is pretty key to that strategy.

  2. Not sure if you’re the same commenter to my post of last Sat (1/29), but rather than post a long comment here, please see a more thoughtful post I will put up on Friday, "If I Were King of the Railroad."

    The unprecedented concentration of wealth into the hands of the few is coming at the expense of the working middle class. It’s a huge problem, but in the short term I’d like to see Federal disincentives to offshore our jobs. Like the quote I have in the basic post above, “We can make our kids do math problems until their fingers fray and they still won't be able to compete with sweatshop dictatorships where workers make 20 cents an hour.”