The Good and the Not So Good State of the Union

First the good stuff.

“Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse,” President Obama told the country. “Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations – they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

I about fell off my chair when I heard that. He was speaking the truth, telling us all something that we should wrap our collective brains around.

You don’t really need the comparative statistics. Travel outside the country, to say Shanghai, Berlin, Tokyo or Copenhagen and it quickly become obvious that, despite all their real problems, others are moving into the 21st Century and we’re lagging behind.

“No president has ever delivered so direct a strike to the soft underbelly of contemporary American conservatism, or one that resonates more with Americans’ hopes for their nation.,” commented Alan Meyerson, co-editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine.

Obama’s got both the diagnosis and the prescription right. I think he means it. He thinks the lag can be overcome within the strictures of the capitalist market system. And, he’s much better suited to try that than the craven, self aggrandizing lot that make up most of the U.S. Congress and the timid politicians that comprise the bulk of the rest.

“We need to encourage American innovation,” the President said. “Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history – an investment that could lead to the world’s cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched.

“And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy – in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives.”

And then came the problematic.

“And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” he said. “It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.” There are a lot of people who would disagree. Each of these presents serious technical, safety and environmental quandaries that he did not address and which will be debated in the months and year ahead. Still we should welcome his call for passage of a “comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

Those other countries are not investing in green technologies merely “because they want those jobs.” They also want to pass on to future generations a clean and safe environment and they recognize the physical and political consequences of perpetual reliance on petroleum (and coal) as our principle source of energy. It should be the same for us. However, right now nearly everything we contemplate doing is seen through the prism of the economy and employment.

Yes, a longer range view that links our future to green technologies, sustainable agriculture and the like is essential but so is the hard fact that over one out of every ten people in the country can’t find a way to earn a living. There shouldn’t be a contradiction between addressing both problems at once. Indeed, if the latter is not addressed with the urgency it requires all hell will break loose and neither President Obama nor anyone else will be in a political position to do anything about the future.

Critics used to make fun of socialist counties’ five year plans but right now we could use something like that.

And then there is what’s necessary and possible.

In an editorial titled, “Opposite of Bold” that appeared the day before the State of the Union, the New York Times said, “The danger is that the initiatives announced so far this week will move to center stage, eclipsing more difficult and more important needs. It is Mr. Obama’s job to make sure that does not happen.”

“There is a crater in the economy where the job market used to be, a hole so deep that it would take at least 10 million new jobs to fill it,” wrote the Times editors. “There are more than six jobless workers for every job opening, which means prolonged spells of unemployment for many of the nation’s 15.3 million jobless workers.”

“A lack of jobs also means delays in getting hired or lower entry-level wages for millions of high school and college graduates – long-lasting setbacks. It portends little to no wage gains well into the future for millions of underemployed Americans, and even for the majority who have held on to their jobs as the economy has tanked. It means intractable budget deficits – because without new jobs, economic performance and tax revenues will remain inadequate.

“Even the $154 billion jobs bill passed by the House in December is only a starting point for the repair and recovery work that needs to be done.

A study recently commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors predicts jobless rates in most urban areas are likely to cease rising some times this year but it will be a long time before they return to what was normal in the 1990s. Furthermore, in places like the inland portions of California, it will remain above 10 percent at least through 2013. The Congressional Budget Office says unemployment will remain above 9 percent for at least the next two years.

A record 40 percent of the jobless still looking for work have been on the streets for at least 6 months. Twenty percent of the 25 o 54 year old men in the country are not working.

And, it goes without saying – but should be repeated anyway – joblessness is highest proportionately for communities of color, young workers, and women who head households.

Nearly one third of all people in the country now live below the federal poverty line, according to a recent Gallup poll. Close to one in five say they lacked the money to buy food at some point in the last year. Over 38 million people – one in eight – now receive food stamps, the highest portion ever.

Economist Dean Baker commented last week that the latest data on unemployment insurance filings indicate that the economy is still shedding jobs. “With final demand growth remaining weak, there is little prospect for a turnaround of employment in the near future.” he wrote.

“To create jobs, Mr. Obama must make it clear that he will not abandon the states at this time of budget crises,” said the Times editorially. “Bolstered aid to states is unpopular. But it is among the surest ways to preserve and create jobs because the money is pushed through quickly to employees, contractors and beneficiaries. The alternative is recovery-killing spending cuts and tax increases on the state level.”

To students of all ages in California the portion of the President’s address devoted to education must have seemed like a sick joke of some kind. Amid all the lofty talk about increased funding and educational “reforms,” the state is responding to the financial crisis by decimating its school system from kindergartens to graduate schools. It’s hardly clear what Obama’s call for increased commitment to community colleges is going to mean in a state where student are finding teachers laid off and classes cut that they need to complete their degrees, or, in some cases to qualify for student loans. Students here – at all levels – are planning a massive day of protest next month.

Following the President’s speech, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, said she welcomed the Administration’s call for increased spending on education but added: “Our future depends on education and we know that kids don’t get second chances. So we are looking for that ongoing commitment to public education.” Further, she said, a federal freeze on spending will do harm. “There’s still a lot of folk that are suffering. I am confident that the president wants to do the best he can under this circumstance. But ultimately the cuts are real and they’re going to hurt people.”

The President said he would use part of the $30 billion in bailout funds the big banks paid back to the federal government to create small business loans and has proposed a new small business tax credit directed to more than a million small businesses that hire new employees or raise wages. Economist Robert Reich commented in his blog last week that “targeted tax cuts,” mostly for small business, are good to the extent they give businesses a nudge toward creating more jobs. But businesses won’t begin to create lots of jobs until they have lots of customers. And that won’t happen until lots more Americans have work. The only way to get them work when businesses aren’t hiring is for government to prime the pump…The best and fastest way for government to prime the pump is to help states and locales, which are now doing the opposite. They’re laying off teachers, police officers, social workers, health-care workers, and many more who provide vital public services. And they’re increasing taxes and fees. They have no choice. State constitutions require them to balance their budgets. But the result is to negate much of what the federal government has tried to do with its stimulus to date.

“We need a second stimulus directed at states and locales.

In an email message last week, NAACP President, Benjamin Todd Jealous, observed, “The Supreme Court has unleashed unlimited amounts of corporate dollars into the political landscape with its ruling this month on campaign finance reform, money sure to undercut and distort the real priorities of our democracy. President Obama has vowed to fight. He has pledged to reverse the worst impact of the Supreme Court decision. Yet without each of us fully engaged, billions of dollars will be harnessed to crush his agenda and those who support it for simply daring to do the people’s will.”

“Still, we can win. Organized and educated people ultimately trump misdirected money.

“But without you and all your friends and neighbors back on the battlefield, harnessing the power of we, there is no guarantee progress will continue. Like every great wave, the one that made it possible for an African-American family to live in the White House must be regenerated, or it will ebb. More importantly, our communities’ and families’ fates, which are in perilous condition, will ebb with it.

Last Friday, the Campaign for America’s Future announced it was launching a grassroots campaign to get the Senate to pass the House jobs bill and embark on a comprehensive long term job strategy comprising key goals of rebuilding the nation’s schools, roads and energy systems, closing state budget gaps to prevent mass layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters, directing public sector hiring to expand services that strengthen our communities and using revenue to “Buy American” and revitalize our manufacturing industry.

Last week, AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, pledged that the labor federation will “continue to be an independent voice for middle class Americans and fight for the change working families need – and we are ready to do more.”

“This is the time for a broad movement of Americans demanding jobs and an economy that works for all, and we’re ready to put our energy and leadership into building that movement – taking the fight to the doorstep of the banks that are exploiting struggling homeowners, of corporations that are running away from communities and of lawmakers who choose to back them up,” Trumka said.

Carl Bloice

Republished with permission from the Black Commentator.

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