Tag: State of the Union

Cato Responds to the State of the Union 2013

Cato Institute scholars Michael Tanner, Julian Sanchez, Alex NowrastehSimon Lester, John Samples, Pat Michaels, Jagadeesh Gokhale, Michael F. Cannon, Jim Harper, Malou Innocent, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Ilya Shapiro, Trevor Burrus and Neal McCluskey respond to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg and Lester Romero.

Thanks, but I’d Rather Keep My Money under This Mattress

If his election rhetoric, or stories about tonight’s State of the Union, are any indication, this evening President Obama will talk a lot about “investing” in education. And that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want to wisely and profitably put money into the American people? The problem is, such federal spending has never been wise or profitable, unless the profit you seek is political points.

To demonstrate the dangerous folly of federal education spending, I offer the following chart on higher education. And shortly, Andrew Coulson will be delivering a damning graphic on k-12.

What does this chart show? That inflation-adjusted student aid—the vast majority of which came through the federal government—has exploded over the last thirty years, but probably hasn’t made college more affordable. No, it has fueled a more than doubling of inflation-adjusted college prices, all while median household income has been basically flat. Schools have simply raised their prices to capture the aid.

That’s some investment: students and taxpayers are out bigger and bigger sums of money while colleges—and approval-seeking politicians who want to show how much they “care”—reap the big profits. Probably not the payoff most people had in mind.

Obama’s Andrew Shepherd Moment?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen today laments what he calls the “cratering of liberalism.” Cohen remembers that the “liberal agenda once included confiscating handguns and abolishing the right to own one.” Yes, agreed, we should remember that. Liberals would really like Obama to channel Michael Douglas, who played a liberal commander-in-chief in the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin film, The American President (excerpt below). Should we do this in the inaugural address or the state of the union? That’s probably the debate among Obama’s speechwriters. 

The President’s Spilled-Milk Joke

One of President Obama’s better applause lines the other night came when he stepped into the unaccustomed public role of a deregulator:

We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill — because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.

I will note for the record that we had made a bit of a hobbyhorse of EPA’s dairy-oil-spill controls, taking note of them in no fewer than four posts as the sort of regulatory overkill the Obama administration should disavow. House Republicans complain that the president is now putting himself at the head of someone else’s parade, since their members had long urged repeal of the rules and the Obama EPA under administrator Lisa Jackson had dragged its heels about going along. But I’m not going to complain. The ability to get out in front of the other side’s parades served President Bill Clinton well, and I just wish President Obama would use it more often.

Obama’s State of the Union Signals Grand Strategy Status Quo

It was clever, though a bit too opportunistic, for the president to begin and end his State of the Union address with references to Iraq, and the sacrifices of the troops. The war has been a disaster for the United States, and for the Iraqi people, of course. But the subject has always been a win-win for him. Whenever he talks about Iraq, it serves as a not-so-subtle reminder about who got us into this mess (i.e. not him).

Others might gripe about the president wrapping himself in the troops, and the flag (or, in the case of this speech, the troops’ flag). But Americans are rightly proud of our military, and there is nothing wrong with invoking the spirit of service and sacrifice that animates the members of our military. (There is something wrong with suggesting that all Americans should act as members of the military do, a point that Ben Friedman makes in a separate post.)

But while some degree of chest-thumping, “America, ooh-rah” is to be expected, this passage sent me over the edge:

America is back.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. …Yes, the world is changing; no, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

Have we learned nothing in the past decade? Have we learned anything? To say that we are the indispensable nation is to say that nothing in the world happens without the United States’ say so. That is demonstrably false.

Of course, the United States of American is an important nation, the most important, even. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We boast an immensely powerful military, a still-dynamic economy (in spite of our recent challenges), and a vibrant political culture that hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to emulate. But the world is simply too vast, too complex, and the scale of transactions in the global economy is enormous. It is the height of arrogance and folly for any country to claim indispensability.

The president is hardly alone, however. Many in Washington—including some of his most vociferous critics in the Republican Party— celebrate the continuity in U.S. foreign policy as an affirmation of its wisdom. The president’s invocation of the “indispensable nation” line from the mid-1990s is merely the latest manifestation of a foreign policy consensus that has held for decades.

But the world has changed, and is still changing. Our grand strategy needs to adapt. When we embarked on the unipolar project after the end of the Cold War, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output, and a third of global military expenditures; today, we account for just under half of global military spending, but our share of the global economy has fallen below 25 percent.

What we need, therefore, is a new strategy that aims to promote our core interests, but that doesn’t expect U.S. troops and taxpayers to also bear the burdens of promoting everyone else’s. After all, the values that are so important to most Americans, and that the president cited in his speech last night, are also cherished by hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people in many countries around the world. It is reasonable to expect them to pay some of the costs required to advance these values, and to sustain a peaceful and prosperous international order. Our current strategy still presumes that it is not.

The Trouble with the State of the Union: America Is Not a Military Unit

At both the beginning and end of his state of the union address last night, the president suggested that the country can solve its problems by modeling itself after the military.  Near the start he said:

At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, [members of the military] exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

He ended on the same note, comparing the unity of the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden to the political cooperation between himself Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, and then suggested we all follow that example:

This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

One problem with this rhetoric is its militarism. Not content to thank the troops for serving, the president has adopted the notion that military culture is better than that of civilian society and ought to guide it. That idea, too often seen among service-members, is corrosive to civil-military relations. Troops should feel honored by their society, but not superior to it. We do not need to pretend they are superhuman to thank them.

There is an even bigger problem with this “be like the troops, put aside our differences, stop playing politics, salute and get things done for the common good” mentality. It is authoritarian. Sure, Americans share a government, much culture, and have mutual obligations. But that doesn’t make the United States anything like a military unit, which is designed for coordinated killing and destruction. Americans aren’t going to overcome their political differences by emulating commandos on a killing raid. And that’s a good thing. At least in times of peace, liberal countries should be free of a common purpose, which is anathema to freedom.

The more we get shoved together under a goal, the less free we are, and the more we have to fight about. Differing conceptions of good and how to achieve it are the source of our political disagreements. Those competing ends are manifest in different parties, congressional committees, executive agencies and policy programs. Our government is designed for fighting itself, not others.

There’s no danger that this suggestion that we emulate military cooperation to make policy will actually succeed. Our politicians are hypocritical enough to rarely believe their own rhetoric about escaping politics, thankfully. But the happy talk is at least a distraction from useful thought about successful legislating. Productive deals get done by recognizing and accommodating competing ends, not by wishing them away. That means better politics, not none.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.