Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State of the Union

The State of the Union
P. Schultz
February 13, 2013

“In a State of the Union address largely focused on economic themes, he asserted that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity” and suggested that it is time for a more balanced approach, including accepting that government has a vital role to play in ensuring economic growth and a secure middle class. 

“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda,” Mr. Obama said. “But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.” [From the New York Times, February 13, 2013]

OK, so here are the president’s words. Not especially controversial as near as I can tell, at least not from a viewpoint that is conventional. The president appeals for “balance.” Yes, we should cut some government spending but that will not be enough to guarantee prosperity. And, of course, a lot of people will think: “Gee, what’s wrong with that?” And as the “bickering” re-emerges in Washington, D.C., those same people will think: “What clowns we have for public officials.” And, of course, they would not be completely wrong. 

But here is a question that occurred to me. Do we need an “economic plan” more than we need a “political plan?” Is our current situation the result of “bad economics” or the result of “bad politics?” Of course, being a “political scientist,” I think the latter is more of a problem than the former. That is, it is our politics that has us messed up, even more than our economics. To focus on our economic situation and look to come up with “an economic plan” that will lessen our disgust with our current situation is delusionary. If we cannot get our politics right, then we cannot get our economics right. It is, I believe, as simple as that. 

Let me use one example of what I mean. One reason, for me a major reason, we are in the situation we are in today is because we have a war-oriented politics. And by that I don’t mean solely we have a war-making mentality when it comes to foreign policy. That is true enough and our military expenditures, which Obama barely mentioned, are humungous and delusional, both from the viewpoint of necessity or defense and from the viewpoint of what we can afford. But our war-making mentality affects our domestic politics as well, as is evident in our never ending “war on drugs” – which the drugs seem to be winning – to our war on fat and other alleged sins of many Americans. It has been recommended that we start a war on cancer and, of course, a war on global warming. And all of this is in addition to our also never ending “war on terror.” 

War-making politics is a peculiar kind of politics. It is not especially unique to the United States and it has a long history with humankind for a very good reason: It is quite seductive. Power is, always has been, and always will be seductive, far more seductive than sex or greed or gluttony. One amazing thing is how little this phenomenon is appreciated these days when it is thought, and thought by both sides of our political divide, that power is good and more power is better. The “liberals” seem to embrace governmental power, while the “conservatives” seem to embrace “private” power. But both embrace power and think that it is power, centralized, organized, magnified power that will “save the day.” 

            It is from this perspective that I argue that what we need is not “an economic plan” but rather “a political plan.” So long as we think that economic plans can “save” us, we are doomed to repeat over and over tasks that resemble that imposed on Sisyphus.  

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