Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SOTU 2012

They did a state of the union sort of thing. I found it much more enjoyable than the last one.  The substance can basically be summed up as:
"We have done awesome in the foreign policy sphere.  We inherited a spectacularly bad economy, we have turned things around, and we have a plan for how to consolidate and build on these economic gains.  Also, Republicans are making it really hard to get things done around here, despite how many of our policies are from their playbook. Go America!"
The speech is book-ended by the administrations substantial foreign policy successes, but the meat of it is all economic.  First, Obama lays out the short and long term factors involved in our economic woes (long term: structural adjustments such as outsourcing and replacement of workers with robots, short term: irresponsible lending/borrowing and the subsequent banking collapse).  He sees the outcome of all that to be increased inequality and high unemployment.  He then walks through the story of the catastrophic economic collapse (pre-Obama policies), and the subsequent recovery (under Obama policies).  He highlights the auto-bailout in particular, which is in my mind the clearest example of successful stimulative action.  Finally, he highlights some ideas about how to consolidate and build upon these recent gains.  They basically boil down to restoring regulations whose loss enabled the collapse, implementing recent regulations to eliminate the need for future bank bailouts (Dodd-Frank), implementing a tax code with fewer deductions for multinational corporations and very rich individuals (Buffet rule), increasing exports by forcing other countries to adopt policies favoring the U.S., funding entrepreneurs and basic research, reforming education, and investing in infrastructure and energy (both gaseous and green).  

Along the way we see some brief comments about immigration reform, some useful facts that belie the right wing "Obama is a socialist" dialog, and one unfortunate spilled milk joke.  Point by point below the fold (masochists only).

We start off with foreign policy achievements:
  1. Done with Iraq
  2. Killed Osama Bin Laden
  3. Reduce the power of the Taliban 
  4. Bringing more people home form Afghanistan 
I'm less impressed with the last two than the first, but it's all good.  Also, I'm not super excited that he's using the military unity of purpose as a guideline for how Americans should work together.  I get the point that unity and post-partisanship would make us more effective, but the comparison makes me uncomfortable

Next we have some aspirational stuff and broad excitement about recovery and the renewal of the American Dream.  Whatever.

Then we have a really interesting characterization of the options as Obama sees them, and the long and short term challenges that led to our economic collapse and continue to impede our recovery.
We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
Let’s remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren’t, and personal debt that kept piling up.
In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior.
I think that the income inequality stuff is worth thinking about.  I think that the long term trends Obama notes are troubling, but that the mortgage collapse was far more impactful in the short run.  I also don't think there's much to be gained from talking about economics as a morality play.  Bad things happen because of bad incentives or insufficient controls, and not so much because of bad and good people.

Next we have a nicely contextualized discussion of the depth of the recession and some of the success stories from the administration's economic policies.  Go team America.

Next we have a bit about fixing tax incentives for moving workers and profits overseas.  I'm all about removing stupid deductions from the tax code, but I'm less excited about subsidies for American businesses.  I guess I tend to think that in an even playing field our natural productivity advantages will help make up for things.

Then there's stuff about recent improvements in exports, and promises to continue to work to improve things.

Then there's an anecdote.  I just don't care about anecdotes.  After the anecdote there's some pretty promising stuff about education reform.  Increasing school choice, making teachers fire-able, merit based pay.  I'm more or less in favor of all of those things.  Obama also makes some nice points about wanting to keep smart foreign students here (Yes Please) and reducing debt burden.

We then get some stuff about removing barriers for entrepreneurs and supporting basic research.  I'm all in favor.

Then we get some pretty awesome stuff about energy policy.  I like this section because it shows the similarities between our past treatment of oil and natural gas and the administration's desired treatment of clean energy projects, and because I think that such policies are good ideas until the technologies stand on their own.

After the next anecdote there's some support of infrastructure spending (but mostly just whining that republicans used to support it and don't anymore) followed by some stuff about reducing mortgage burden and some statements about what sorts of regulations are appropriate and what aren't.

Then there's some stuff about the Buffet rule and injecting some fairness into the tax code.  It annoys me quite a lot that this isn't already fixed, but I'm glad it's part of the national discourse at least.

Then there's the obligatory venting about partisan gridlock.  This is all fair, but not particularly interesting to me.

Then we have more about foreign policy successes, including the momentum of the Arab spring, strengthened relationships abroad, and modifications to make our military more flexible and cost effective.  It's really amazing how successful Obama has been on foreign policy, given how much Republicans love to talk about how they're the party of Defense and how little credit Obama has gotten for his basically uniform excellence in this arena.

Some obligatory national cheerleading.

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