In his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, an echo of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 address in the same city calling for a “New Nationalism,” President Obama gave a good summation of the social contract built up through generations and their government, and how conservative “you’re on your own” economics have broken that contract, created staggering inequality and a feeling of hopelessness among those not part of the 1%. He sought to reframe the concerns of the 99% as American values, with a particular emphasis on how this contrasts with Wall Street ethics, for which he saved his most substantive remarks. “For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded,” the President said, in recognition of the frustration and anger that has characterized our politics in the Obama era.
But this isn’t just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.
Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years. Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.
That’s the thesis statement of the speech. And it does a good job of laying out the fundamental problem with our economy, although there is too much emphasis on structural unemployment arising from automation, and a focus on the “innovation economy.” But this was the first Presidential address maybe ever that simply said trickle-down economics do not work.
“The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.
It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
For one of the first times ever, the President mentioned that two rounds of tax cuts passed by the Bush Administration in 2001 and 2003 created almost no jobs. He said that “Mortgage lenders … tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford” and that “irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight” on Wall Street “nearly destroyed our entire economy.” He recited the now-familiar economic statistics about inequality and how it corrupts, how the rich purchase politicians and have them do their bidding. He added stats about the creaking to a halt of upward mobility in this country.
I’m just not sure what the solutions expressed in the speech mean to provide. There’s a familiar focus on education, with the welcome line that “We shouldn’t be laying off good teachers right now – we should be hiring them.” There’s a focus on science and research and development, which makes sense. There’s a very good line about how building an economy on high-tech manufacturing rather than an outsized financial industry will attract the best and brightest to productive work, something I think needs to be stressed.
But then there’s this brag on how we have to live within our means and prioritize our deficit, the wrong message in a fragile economy when you can borrow at a negative interest rate. The first substantive plan in the speech is to cut the payroll tax, an anti-contractionary measure but not necessarily the stuff around which a New Deal is created. Obama does support returning progressivity to the tax code, in the form of returning the high-end tax rates to the Clinton years. But that stops short of transformation.
I was most interested in the section on financial reform, where there were two specific policy proposals. First, the President vowed to veto any alterations to the Dodd-Frank law sent to him by Congress. That includes the de-funding of the agencies set up to implement the law (of course, this has already been violated; the Commodity Futures Trading Commission budget, signed by the President, was slashed 1/3 from his initial request). Then there was this:
We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability. We should be strengthening them. Here’s another example. Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes these penalties count – so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.
That’s a new one. I assume he’s talking about the SEC request to increase their penalties. However, it’s bracing to hear the President talk about penalties being too weak and absorbed by Wall Street as the cost of doing business when the hallmark of his Administration has been an unwillingness to prosecute Wall Street for systemic fraud. Action will be needed before I’m convinced anything has changed. It’s good that he recognizes the trust deficit between Wall Street and Main Street; but he needs to know that too many in this country see Washington, and his Administration, on Wall Street’s side of the line.