The "Be Your Best Buddy" seating arrangement for the State of the Union address, cited by mainstream media commentators as a symbol of renewed political comity, eliminated more than partisan aisles. In concert with the president's address, it swept away any doubt that American politics has become a single-party system devoted to militarism and corporate interests whose global ambitions come at the expense of the "general welfare" so fervently urged by the Preamble to the Constitution.
Much of what passes for political discourse these days is essentially a charade. Framed as an existential exercise in TV programming, free from context, current events assume theatrical simplicity, uncomplicated by the nagging challenge of substantive context. Such is the state of the union.
President Obama's address fell prey to this charade, revealing more by what it omitted than what it professed. While the nostrums he offered were nominally progressive in comparison to the approach of his adversaries, his proposed call for budgetary discipline was most notably constrained by the non-rebuttable presumption that dealing with the nation's looming deficits and staggering debts should exclude non-discretionary "security" spending.
The accumulating debts the nation faces are real and considerable. As economist Charles McMillion wrote recently: "Household debts almost doubled from $7.2 trillion in 2000 to $14 trillion in 2010. At the same time, government debt more than doubled from $5.7 trillion to $14.0 trillion. This combined private and public increase of over $15 trillion in debt for the decade compares with an increase of just $4.8 trillion in nominal Gross Domestic Product."
In other words, over the past decade the United States borrowed $3 for every $1 of growth in output to cover its budget and trade deficits. Since 1980, the United States has borrowed over $2 for each $1 of GDP growth, the combined debt loads soaring to 187 percent of GDP at the start of 2011 -- still rising rapidly.
The problem, of course, is that excluding from public discourse the excesses of an ever expanding "empire of military bases," as Chalmers Johnson has dubbed it, turns a blind eye to the empire's debilitating costs and the threat to democracy that was the parting wisdom of President Eisenhower.
Obama's acquiescence to the Republican issue frame excludes any meaningful debate about what productive value there is in the United States maintaining 737 military bases in 130 different countries. Absent from the President's speech was any hint of this growing financial burden. Instead we were offered nostrums about "progress" in Afghanistan and Iraq where precious taxpayer dollars continue to be poured down mountain and desert rat holes.
Absent too -- only a week after commemorating Martin Luther King Day -- were any references to the arc of history bending in the direction of justice, let alone any comment on the shameful rise in the ranks of the nation's impoverished.
The charade includes acceptance of the belief that public opinion on issues is driving the administration into the arms of the Republican arms merchants, when the evidence suggests it has been Obama's lack of forceful leadership and not the Republican agenda that enjoys favor with voters.
Indeed the public is far from rallying behind the Republican agenda of cutting social programs without regard to defense. A January 2nd poll conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair revealed that 60 percent of respondents favor balancing the budget by taxing the wealthy and 20 percent prefer cuts to defense spending. Only 4 percent want Medicare spending cut; only 3 percent want Social Security benefits cut. As Michael Tomasky quipped, "Evidently the American people are socialists."
Though there was a vague reference to "challenges decades in the making," no perpetrators were named, allowing Congressman Paul Ryan to paint the recent past with similar broad rhetorical brushstrokes, sealing a bipartisan embrace that absolves the Reagan-Bush anti-tax dogma of any culpability for our current condition.
Rather than confront the continual drain of tax dollars accruing from the Middle East fiascos that George Bush led us into, Obama called for a new Sputnik moment and offered paeans to "winning the future" through "innovation," as though a point in time can be competed for like points in some sort of global Super Bowl. We were called on to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world."
We were urged to accept whole hog the lessons of Asian nations that are compelling student performance, while being cautioned not to engage in the industrial policies that lie at the heart of the Asian governments' economic growth.
While it would be unrealistic to ask that the President cite NAFTA as the modern era's Sputnik moment, hearing him hail the virtues of the South Korean trade deal while professing hope for a deal with Colombia was haunting, sans any mention of Colombia's first-in-the-world rank among murderers of union organizers.
Let's be clear: in the absence of a call to reform our trading regime, "innovation" is a chimera, a rhetorical fig leaf that obscures the fact that America's great innovators such as Steve Jobs, like many of his counterparts, have scaled up production of their innovations abroad. Jobs' jobs and thousands of those created by his Silicon Valley contemporaries are, in a word, un-American.
The President's call for investing in clean energy development is laudable, but is more likely protective covering for his recent retreat from environmental enforcement than a commitment to an industrial strategy. Any discerning assessment of the President's "commitment" to domestic manufacturing would be less than sagacious if it failed to take into account the appointment of General Electric's CEO to head the Advisory Council on Competitiveness, as GE manufactures 60 percent of its products offshore from whence it gets 80 percent of its profits.
To promote innovation without compelling domestic production comes dangerously close to perpetrating a fraud upon a working population whose real wages have now effectively been stagnant for decades.
"Every day families struggle to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same," the President lectured. The facts suggest otherwise, as McMillion's data reveal.
People are living beyond their means because escalating costs have outstripped their earning power. Seeking remedies that exclude the globetrotting excesses of our military and Wall Street financiers does nothing but ensure that providing for the general welfare will continue to be a public virtue of the past.
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