Yesterday evening I watched the speech that President Obama gave at George Washington University, and I have several thoughts and questions after doing so. There were some things that I found very encouraging, while there were others that I have deep reservations about. While I only write about politics occasionally, I had a lot of thoughts running through my head, and I would be interested in hearing various perspectives on some of these issues. If you have not seen the speech, it is embedded below, and you can read the transcript here.
First, in discussing his vision for America, Obama clearly laid out his concern that Americans have an attitude of selflessness and concern for others. He highlighted that we are in this together, that the stronger in society have a responsibility to care for the weak, and all of those are themes that I heartily concur with. “The America I know,” he said, “is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share.”
Secondly, I think it became clear that President Obama does truly care about our future. He does truly care that we work hard and lead in innovation and education. Right or wrong in how he approaches them, he does really care about those things.
Thirdly, in a day when castigating the other side is the thing to do (and he did do some of that himself at other points), he did at least acknowledge that those opposing his views do truly want the best and right thing for America. Sometimes people seem to imply that those on the other side want to destroy the country, or just profit from government policies, but he at least acknowledged the sincerity of leaders who disagree.
Fourthly, I felt like–more than in the past–he made clear what his vision was for America. Debates about specific policies, in my opinion at least, often miss the forest for the trees. Given Obama’s presentation about his vision for America, his policies do make more sense. Whether his vision is the correct one or not is another question, but it seemed to me that this was a clearer statement of why his policies are what they are than I have heard in the past.
The Discouraging/The Questions
First, while the President did go beyond specific policies to his overall vision, he fails to really get at the underlying question: should government be the one to provide all of these neighbor-helping programs? That is, while I agree that we absolutely ought to have compassion for those who fall on hard times, and so on, I am quite unconvinced that the best way to do this is for the government to provide those services. This is really a two-part question: (1) Is it the proper role of government to do this? (2) Does/Can the government do these things well? I don’t believe the answer to (1) is yes, and I will discuss that a little bit below, and I think evidence points to the answer to (2) being quite negative as well. But I would be intrigued to hear arguments to the contrary.
Secondly, do entitlement programs not breed a sense of entitlement? When it is assumed that everyone should be able to go to have college paid for, when it is assumed that everyone should be able to buy a home, and the government steps in to make those things possible, how will we ever get away from such a beast? Why would it stop with those two things? Why not all my healthcare (wait, that is happening), why not all my utilities, why not my food, and so on? Again, I would like to hear answers to this, but the sense of entitlement seems to be growing more and more, and I’m not sure how it can end with this type of reasoning. Perhaps not everyone will be able to college full-time right out of high school. Maybe they’ll have to work hard for a couple years, rein in expenditures, save money, and then work during college. Many have and many will. Do entitlement programs diminish their determination? Shouldn’t that question at least be part of the discussion?
Thirdly, on what basis is it right to tax others more just because they have more? On this point, Obama said,
As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally borne a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate. Everybody pays, but the wealthier have borne a little more. This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well -– we rightly celebrate their success. Instead, it’s a basic reflection of our belief that those who’ve benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more. Moreover, this belief hasn’t hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale. They continue to do better and better with each passing year.
I understand the pragmatic reasoning, but I simply don’t see how it can be supported. Sure, they can afford more, but how can a line be drawn with that reasoning? What is too much? 50%? 60%? 70%? 80%? 90%? There are some people that could probably be taxed at 90% of their income and still live comfortable lives. I see no criteria for determining these things. Now, I will be the first to say that those who have more should look for ways to use what they have to help those with less. But should that be mandated by the government? If so, how far can it go? Just because our society has been doing that for the greater part of the last century does not mean that it is a good idea, or one that is likely to keep us prosperous. And while President Obama claims that the tax code doesn’t punish people for success, in reality it does. I have known several people who were in one tax bracket, made a little more money through their business the next year, but because that put them into a higher tax bracket, they ended up actually making less overall. Is that really going to promote a society of fairness that encourages hard work and creativity?
Lastly, do we not need a serious discussion of the underlying issues? Obama’s whole speech assumes that the welfare state is the proper vision for America. Given that assumption, I agree that the rest of his approach makes sense. But what if that basic vision is wrong? Perhaps that is where a serious discussion needs to take place. So many politicians speak past each other without getting at these root, fundamental issues.Read More