January 29, 2008 [LINK / comment]
State of the Union, 2008
There wasn't much surprise in George W. Bush's last State of the Union address last night. Last year he still had hope for getting something done, but since then he has become acutely aware of his lame duck status. Now the name of the game is bowing out gracefully. Accordingly, it was fitting that he began on a note of seeking bipartisan cooperation. (See transcript in the Washington Post.) Unfortunately, the specific measure of cooperation that he cited -- the "stimulus" package -- does nothing to address the underlying structural distortions that gave rise to the current economic slowdown. Lacking in a broad consensus about the nature of the problem, there isn't much reason to hope for much more. Perhaps the next president will be more inclined to face up to the glaring defects in our economic system and launch some honest reforms. But with the most likely presidential nominees being McCain, Obama, and Hillary Clinton, that is not very likely.
Likewise, I'm not convinced that making the Bush tax cuts permanent is a good idea, especially given the lack of spending discipline on the part of the White House and the (formerly) GOP-led Congress. Now that the Democrats are in control of Congress, it's true any additional revenue is likely to be spent, but given their recent record on the budget, it will be hard for the Republicans to criticize them for this. Thus, Bush's threat to veto any bill "that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half" rang just a little hollow. Some Democrats have sensed the great opportunity that they have with voters who prioritize fiscal responsibility, and it may be the case that new leaders will emerge who actually want to restrain spending. But in a recession year, as this one seems to be, probably not.
While I strongly support his desire to do away with the "bias in the tax code against those who do not get their health insurance through their employer," I'm not sure that his proposed remedies go far enough. The simplest way to do that would be to tax employer contributions just like regular income. (I know: not bloody likely.)
As for his "No Child Left Behind Act," Bush declared that "no one can deny its results," referring to test scores. It's too bad First Lady Laura Bush, a teacher, didn't set her husband straight on that matter. The more you emphasize test scores, the more that education degenerates into a sterile quest to memorize bits of information, while critical thinking and creativity are steadily degraded. NCLB is a huge waste, and an unwarranted intrusion by the Federal government into state matters.
Bush rightly extolled the virtues of free trade, particularly the social and political benefits on countries like Colombia, which remains in peril of narco-terrorism. Unfortunately, he failed to link that issue to immigration reform, which he seems to think can be addressed by an earnest appeal to "uphold both our laws and our highest ideals." Good luck.
On foreign policy, Bush proudly hailed the progress achieved thanks to the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, but also noted new challenges in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was upbeat on prospects for democracy, even though there isn't much good news to report on that front lately, at least not in the Middle East. Understandably, the President said nothing about the potential for a major decline in U.S. global prestige if the current economic turmoil (mortgage defaults, rising energy prices) turns into a real crisis. The inability of Bush or any leader in Washington right now to effectively address the immigration issue, and more importantly to recognize the ugly truth that our economy today depends to a large extent on illegal activity, raises the possibility that the U.S. economy and the global economy are in a more precarious position than most people realize.
Bush's Mideast trip
It's hard to know what to make of President Bush's recent trip to the Middle East. I know it's one of those rituals that presidents have to do, like touring Latin America every so often, just to show we haven't forgotten that they exist. Admirable it may be, but Bush's defiantly optimistic outlook on the Mideast is getting harder and harder to reconcile with reality. (Within days of his departure, the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians erupted into violence, as the wall between Gaza and Egypt was breached by a series of explosions.) Given the attitude of the two sides right now, Bush's declaration that a peace settlement is possible by the end of his term puts the U.S. in a bad bargaining position; Uncle Sam will get the old foreign aid "shake-down" as the price to be paid for a peace settlement. He also lobbied hard for democracy, at least for the sake of appearance.
In this context, it is appropriate to mention the documentary video called to my attention by Connie: The World Without US. It's a fictional account of a president who gets elected on a pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from overseas, sort of an isolationist utopia...