Sunday, February 07, 2010

State of the Union Address: ... and the Ugly

The last two posts were about the “good” (parts I agree with) and the “bad” (parts I disagree with) in the State of the Union address. This is about the “ugly”, the parts that just don't work at all.

When President Obama, announced his spending freeze of about 17 percent of the Federal Budget, he said that the freeze would not start for a year and said that is how budgeting works. At that point there was laughter from the audience. No, Mr. President, that is not how budgeting works – that is how my ex-wife thought that budgeting works. The way budgets work (outside the Beltway, anyway) is that you control your spending so that it does not outstrip your income. Most businesses and families can tell that you can borrow for emergencies, or borrow in order to take advantage of an opportunity to increase income, but you avoid it otherwise. After you have increased discretionary spending to unsustainable levels, you do not freeze the spending at those levels, you lower the spending. That is how budgeting works. When voters divorce the politicians that are supposed to represent them in Washington in 2010 and 2012, the out of control spending will be one of the reasons. He did advocate that Congress establish a bipartisan commission to come up with ideas to cut the deficit, but his motivation appeared to be to get political cover by getting Republicans on a commission that advocates raising taxes as a way of decreasing the deficit. If I thought revenue from increasing taxes would actually be applied to reducing the deficit, raising taxes wouldn't bother me that much, but it never works that way. In fact I think that paying for expenditures with taxes is better than paying for them with borrowing, which just kicks the can down the road, but taxes are a relatively minor issue compared to spending. When the proposal to create a bipartisan deficit reduction commission died in the Senate, the President said that he was establishing such a commission by executive order, which I think shows at least a mild disrespect for the separation of powers. My main objection, however, it is that a commission is just a distraction, a way to appear to be doing something about reducing the deficit without really doing it.

The ugliest part of the speech was near then end when after saying that with “all due respect for separation of powers,” the recent decision of the Supreme Court that a law limiting expenditure of corporations and other organizations (including non-profit organizations and labor unions) overturned a century of law and would open the floodgates for influence by special interests including foreign corporations. He went on to emphasize that foreign organizations should not be able to influence elections in the United States. This was ugly on many levels. The President has as much right as anyone to criticize the Supreme Court and its decisions, but doing it in a State of the Union address with the members of the Supreme Court seated just a few feet in front of him and unable to respond was totally inappropriate and lacking in class. Justice Alito could not contain himself and shook his head and muttered under his breath what appeared to be “not true”. What was not true was that the decision had any effect at all on foreign corporations. Foreign corporations and foreign governments continue to be forbidden to influence elections in the United States. One would expect the President and his speech writers to do some fact-checking before such a major speech, especially about a court decision, since President Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former instructor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. I downloaded the decision, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and began to read it, but it is very long (giving the impression that Supreme Court justices think that they get paid by the word), so I skimmed over it to get the gist. I didn't see anything that remotely suggested that it lifted any restrictions on foreign corporations. To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the President is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts. If he keeps making up facts to support his rhetoric, some day he may face a whole chorus of people chanting, “You lie, you lie.” He is lucky that the people in his audience had enough respect for decorum not to shout out what many of them were thinking. I know I find myself shouting a lot at the television lately.

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