Thursday, September 08, 2011

Collective Responsibility and the President's Speech

Many elements of the president's speech Thursday night were laudable, especially his support for collective bargaining.

Moreover, President Obama's proposals to extend unemployment benefits, and continue payroll tax cuts for workers, as well as provide tax incentives to employers to bolster hiring are certainly practical steps toward acknowledging the fiscal emergency this country is in. But, there were a few things the president left out.

First, Mr. Obama didn't say how much money he intended to target specifically for his Jobs For America bill, his public works program that would also hire back laid-off teachers, firefighters, and police officers.

While the figure the White House released prior to the speech is $450 billion, that figure wasn't confirmed during the speech, which was a politically savvy move as, were he to put forth a specific amount, Mr. Obama would have had to elaborate on how he intended to disperse that sum as part of his speech. This would have been hard to do in a thirty minute time spot. The Republican side of the aisle looked restless enough as they were already in danger of missing the NFL playoffs, so instead, as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later intimated, the details will be announced early next week.

Secondly, and more importantly, President Obama didn't mention where he intends to get the funds from which is another astute move as venturing into the specifics of who benefited the most financially, over the past decade and in the post-9/11 era, would only roil and further inflame his congressional opponents.

And, yes, something else that went unmentioned was the upcoming tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, a rather stunning omission.

Some might say, this was a speech about the economy, so why go off on a tangent about the so-called war on terror? What does the war have to do with the estimated $14 million, or 9,1% of Americans who are presently out of work, not to mention the many millions more who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and have given up looking altogether?

The reference to ending federal subsidies to oil companies that have made out like bandits over the past ten years was an adroit way to address that issue, surely, but there was no mention of what can only be called institutionalized tax evasion that allows U.S. corporations to establish headquarters overseas in order to avoid paying taxes.

The Republicans have made reducing the corporate tax rate for corporations from 35% to 25% or less a core campaign issue. The Democrats must now show that the real issue is collecting corporate income tax, and changing the tax code so that it becomes a criminal offense for a firm to open a subsidiary overseas as a way to legally evade paying income tax.

Republicans are right about one thing. We don't need another stimulus package. We need perestroika. We need the kind of restructuring that speaks to a 21st Century need for economic justice and empowerment, and that legislatively opposes profiteering by the few at the expense of the many.

While the president ably, and admirably talks about the need for everyone to pay their fair share, and alludes to rolling back the Bush tax cuts to the upper 1% that should have been allowed to lapse in the first place, the underlying need is not for less government, but for a government that works for the people instead of the other way around, was nowhere in sight. While we are inching towards a plan, there is no sense of an overarching vision, and more than a plan now, we need a vision.

By avoiding mention of 9/11, the president also avoids taking a closer look at the infrastructure of terror set in motion ten years ago which, in and of itself, has cost the American taxpayer more than the $450 billion Mr. Obama has now put on the table. It might be politically dangerous to do so, but nothing substantive can happen when one sticks one's head in the sand. Until this president works to dismantle the terror industry, any steps he takes will largely amount to moving the furniture around on the Titanic.

It was Richard M. Nixon who said, back in October, 1969, "I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war," a position that has been shared by Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

There's another major milestone coming up next month. October 3rd will mark the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan which has since cost the U.S. taxpayer $452 billion, a figure that is daily growing. As the AFP reports, one day in Afghanistan costs the U.S. taxpayer about $300 million. The war in Iraq, over the past decade, has cost us nearly twice that, $794 billion, and also growing.

It's true, of course, that under this president the defense budget has been reduced. Still, the combined costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, for 2012 alone, will be $118 billion.
Remember, too, this figure does not include the cost of operations in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and everywhere else there is a U.S. military presence.

Despite requests by the Iraqi government for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq and for there to be no U.S. bases and, despite the president's assurances that he intends to comply with those wishes, some of his advisors are intent on keeping some 3,000 American troops in Iraq. According to the Congressional Research Service, it costs a whopping $390,000 a year to keep just one soldier in Iraq.
Now, multiply $390,000 by 3,000, and you'll see how Mr. Obama may come up with the funds necessary to rehire all laid-off teachers, as well as rebuild roads and schools.

Oh, and as long as we're on the subject of 9/11, consider, too, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that top line Department of Defense contract spending nearly doubled over the past decade, increasing from $173 billion in 2001 to $390 billion in 2008, only to drop, marginally, to $368 billion in 2010. Surely, there's some room for austerity measures when it comes to defense contracts.

And, while many Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail object vocerifously to big government spending, and insist on austerity measures for you and me, they wouldn't even blink upon learning that, in the post-9/11 era, defense contract spending grew by nearly 10% annually, roughly twice that of non-contract spending. When he gives his next speech to the nation on September 19th, surely this is one "entitlement program" President Obama would like to address.

Any federal budget that provides for ten times as much spending on defense than education is one that reeks of moral bankruptcy.

For those who are upset about the president's willingness to make concessions on Medicare and are concerned about any future concessions on social security, and for those who are upset that Mr. Obama has agreed to review regulations that the business community think are less than profit-friendly, remember that his speech tonight, at its core, emphasized economic justice in a way that we have yet to see since Dr. Martin Luther King. For this, Mr. Obama is to be congratulated. Still, there are those, like myself, who would like him to address the obvious which is that war is not only our number one export, but it is our number one entitlement program.

President Obama's reference to John F. Kennedy was moving. It is important to remember, as JFK suggested, that all of man's problems are manmade. It is equally important to remember Mr. Kennedy's vision of "complete, and total disarmament" at a time when the world has faced a greater nuclear reactor disaster than Chernobyl, Fukushima, and at a time when we are, yet again, faced with another threat of terrorism.

Sadly, we are further away from John F. Kennedy's vision of disarmament now than ever before. We are also further away from collective responsibility for the economic mess this country is in now. Both parties must own their share of contributing to this downturn. The "free marketeer" deregulators have only shown that, without government oversight, the market will be free for them, and costly for the rest of us.

In the end, it is not merely the machinery of war that will have to be dramatically reduced, or dismantled, but the attitude of obstructionism, especially from the most radical elements of the Republican Party that will defeat anything this president proposes even when it doesn't come close to approaching the kind of restructuring needed to restore normalcy, let alone prosperity.