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Steven Cohen

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Has Obama Become Our Only Hope?

Posted: 07/30/2012 8:28 am

While his presidency has been disappointing at times, I continue to root for Barack Obama to succeed. It's a little like the way I root for Derek Jeter to slap the ball to the opposite field when the game's on the line. I know he's got the talent and character to come through in the clutch. The economic collapse that nearly led to a second great depression cannot be blamed on President Obama. Nor can the extreme concentration of wealth that continues to eliminate the middle class and the American dream of opportunity for those that work hard and play by the rules. But Obama is the President, and must be held accountable for the lack of progress in building a sustainable, equitable and growing economy.

This is not to say that Mitt Romney would do any better. While it is clear that he is a political moderate pretending to be a Republican right-winger, a President Romney would be unable to escape the ideological prison he has so carefully constructed and now occupies. He's a smart guy who knows what is needed, but he will never be allowed to leave the Tea Party behind. I hope he likes tea.

The BP oil spill, environmental damage from hydraulic fracturing, inadequate safeguards at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the Wall Street meltdown are only the most visible failures caused by insufficient and incompetent government regulation. When you couple failed regulation with the impact of low taxes on education, public safety and infrastructure, it is easy to see why only those born to wealth have a chance of succeeding in what was once the land of opportunity. Recent studies demonstrate the growing advantages of those born to wealth: the impact of superior schooling, connections and job opportunities on their career trajectory. While the rich have always had those advantages, what has gotten worse are the growing odds against those born with less. The achievement gap between rich and poor is growing. My grandfather was a baker and he and my grandmother raised five sons who all became professionals. My father went to New York City's Stuyvesant High School and City College and worked his way up from bookkeeper to president of a bicycle company. His story is becoming less and less likely.

The idea that our overly activist government is strangling the free enterprise system is beyond absurd. Greed, financial manipulation, offshore bank accounts and cheaper overseas labor explain our lack of GDP growth, along with a government that continues to reduce revenues and downsize. The problem is not too much government, but insufficient and ineffective government.

If conservative economic theories were correct, all these tax cuts and deregulation should have already led wealthy "job creators" to build business and hire people everywhere. Of course, conservatives would say that taxes are still too high and regulations are too burdensome, but this conservative revolution is now three decades old. I don't know. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, GE and countless other businesses seem to be doing OK. What's missing is government-funded public works, education, infrastructure and science R & D. My father and his four brothers could not have succeeded without New York City's public education, libraries, and government-run mass transit system. Government was not a problem to them, but a key resource that helped them succeed.

As my Columbia University colleagues Joe Stiglitz and Jeff Sachs have brilliantly observed, much of what we are seeing is the result of the extreme concentration of wealth, and the rising level of poverty. I would add to that a growing perception that the American economy is unfair and no longer provides opportunity to those who aren't rich.

Declining opportunity and a shrinking middle class means that no one has the money to buy anything. More importantly, no one has the confidence to spend or borrow money to either enjoy the present or invest in the future. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of this perception on young people entering the economy. Unpaid internships, part time and short term assignments, and little else are common for college graduates without family connections or lots of luck.

The hidden hand of the free market does not create a middle class of confident consumers. That requires adequate government revenues, spending and investment. Government and the private sector must work as partners. America's current economic malaise is due to the collapse of the partnership that was formed during the New Deal and World War II and lasted until Ronald Regan famously declared that government was a problem to be solved, not a key partner in building a prosperous society.

And now we are stuck. The super-rich have more influence than ever through the use of super PACs. The anti-government forces in Congress and in many state and local governments are making it difficult for government to maintain current services, let alone invest in the education, research and infrastructure needed to build and compete in a sustainable global economy.

Along with attacks on government, we see other institutions under attack as well. The growing number of children raised by single parents, the decline in religious and civic institutions, and the breakdown of community are all having an impact on the American dream, as does an economy that pollutes and degrades the planet. A poisoned planet threatens the sustainability of all we have built. But while these very real problems require research, understanding and remedy, the growing income disparity and concentration of wealth make it impossible for our society to address these issues. We are in danger of becoming two very distinct nations: a rich one that hides behind walls of wealth and a poor one struggling to survive.

This cannot work. As Abe Lincoln once observed: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free" (Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858). While he was speaking about slavery, the same point applies here. To be a community, America requires public institutions. To build and maintain public institutions, we must have a vibrant public sector. Government is not a "beast" to be starved, but an institution that must be nurtured. Rules, regulations, governance and investment are a necessary but not sufficient condition for prosperity in the modern global economy. We also need a creative and competitive private sector, cutting edge research and educational institutions, and a sense of shared purpose and vision. We need a sophisticated partnership between government, industry and nonprofits.

In 2008 we hoped that Barack Obama could help us build such a 21st century American community. That sense of hope has faded over these past three and a half years. It is true that the President found Washington even more hopeless than he imagined. It is true that politics and greed has made the President's job tougher. It's also true that many of the Yankees' stars are on the disabled list, including Mariano Rivera, my other Yankee hero. Still, the Yankees manage to find a way to win. It's long past the time for President Obama to do the same. I know he understands the nature of the challenge confronting America, and since Romney's coalition prevents Mitt from addressing these issues, Obama is America's only hope. The post-season approaches, and we can't win without a healthy closer.

 

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