Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

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The (myth of the) American Dream

February 5, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write this since watching Obama deliver the State of the Union last Tuesday.

Toward the end, refering to Joe Biden and John Boehner sitting behind him, he said:

…but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.  That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth. That dream — that American Dream.

From what I know, the two of them–and Obama himself–are pretty good examples of the American Dream.   They weren’t born into perfect circumstances and have still managed to become incredibly powerful in adulthood.  It’s just too bad that they are the exception, not the rule.  For most people, most of the time, the American Dream is out of reach.

Two things.  First, lest those of us who are inspired by the Obamas, Bidens, and Boehners feel lonely, we’re not.

The figure below contrasts the average US perception of mobility and inequality with the average response of 27 comparison countries (from the International Social Survey Programme).  Click to enlarge.

I find this data absolutely incredible.  I don’t quite know what to say other than that it makes my point about the myth of mobility quite nicely.  (Well, either that or Americans have managed to create a special mobility-and-equality-conducive environment that they are keeping secret from the rest of the world.  I’ll get to why that’s not the case in another post.)

Secondly, this news story serves as a reminder that the structures that keep just anyone from achieving the American Dream are real.

Late last month, a mother was sentenced to 10 days in jail (she originally faced up to 10 years) for falsifying records to get her daughters into a better school.

Poe [the superintendent] said residency disputes are usually resolved after parents prove that they live in the district, pay tuition or remove their kids from the schools.  This marked the first time that one of their residency challenges went before a jury in criminal court. Poe said prosecuting this case was meant to send a message.

“If you’re paying taxes on a home here… those dollars need to stay home with our students,” Poe said.

However, family and friends of Williams-Bolar call this an unfair case of selective prosecution.

I don’t know the case beyond the various news stories about it, and the NPR interview with the superintendent makes a pretty compelling case for why this situation went to court while prior cases haven’t.  But if you believe education is one of the best “ways out,” it highlights one of the many structures that limit real generational mobility at a large scale.

(As an aside, one of the worst things about this story is that the mother has been working to get her teacher’s license.  Now that she has a felony on her record, she probably won’t be granted licensure.)

On a slightly different note, I’ve been reading a fair amount of migration history that points to where some of the idea of the American Dream came from.  And also where it went.

More on that later.

Jonas

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Kevin Gallagher gets it right

January 7, 2011

It should be no surprise that I agree with Kevin Gallagher (Boston University/Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute), but it’s nice to see that he basically echoes what I’ve been saying over the past few posts about the China/WTO/green energy issue: “The US should not try to beat China down, but should pursue its own green jobs policy and reform the WTO, so the rules allow countries to combat climate change.”

Gallagher does seem to be a bit more optimistic about the WTO than I generally am, as he sees potential room for allowing green-energy subsidies to be exempt from WTO disciplines:

…there may be a window at the WTO for subsidies for alternative energy. Developed countries saw to it that the subsidies agreement at the WTO left room to support research and development, regional inequality and environmental protection. This window closed in 2000, but is under review in the (stalled) round of WTO talks, and could be expanded.

I didn’t know this particular tidbit about the subsidies agreement – very interesting. That said, I don’t really think the ideal course of action is to add more exceptions to misguided WTO rules, since, as they say, the exceptions prove the rule.

What I find most interesting in Gallagher’s piece, though, is this quote he pulls from Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope:

“Indeed, countries that have successfully developed under the current international system have at times ignored Washington’s rigid economic prescriptions by protecting nascent industries and engaging in aggressive industrial policies.”

Too bad this passage doesn’t much fit with what Obama’s apparent international economic policy has been thus far.

Flying Whale

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That election

November 3, 2010

Went to a post-election analysis event today with a former staffer for Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, Brian McClung, and the current Speaker of the Minnesota State House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. The state-level context here is that the governor’s race is going to a recount, although it seems to be generally accepted that the DFL candidate is likely to win; on the other hand, Republicans took control of both the state House and Senate despite the DFL having a veto-proof majority in the Senate and a near veto-proof majority in the House.

So when McClung opened the panel by gloating openly, it seemed justified and actually not annoying at all. Kelliher, on the other hand, seemed to be in total denial. This wasn’t a true “wave” election, she said; if it had been, DFLers X, Y and Z would have also lost. “This is a story of very low turnout,” she said, which as far as I can tell isn’t just a terrible analysis, it’s actually factually untrue.

The two eventually turned to talking about state-level policy moving forward, and Kelliher appeared to regain her sensibility. But then there was a question about what Obama’s reaction to this election should be. McClung put forth a fairly predictable Republican response: Obama needs to see this as a repudiation of his policies; he has overreached and people are angry at all the government spending etc etc. Clinton got this message in 1994 and changed; Obama must do the same. (Moderator Larry Jacobs made a little crack about how it’s interesting that Republicans seem to have fallen in love with Clinton recently.)

Kelliher’s response was completely ineffective and questionably coherent. She agreed that Obama has to relate to voters better. “He has to get out of the White House and talk to real people,” she said, or something completely meaningless like that. Way to defend the foundations of Democratic economic policy in a recession, Ms. Speaker!

So, I linked to this yesterday, but it’s particularly relevant with this context in mind, and worth quoting at length. Robert Reich says:

Obama shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center. I was there. Clinton was reelected because by then the economy had come roaring back to life.

[…]

For the next two years Republicans will try to paint Obama as a big-government liberal out of touch with America, who’s responsible for the continuing bad economy.

Obama won’t be able to win this argument by moving to the center — seeking to paint himself as a smaller-government moderate. This only confirms the Republican’s views that the central issue is size of government, that it’s been too large, and the economy can improve only if it’s smaller.

On the Republican playing field, Republicans always win.

Obama’s best hope of reelection will be to reframe the debate, making the central issue the power of big businesses and Wall Street to gain economic advantage at the expense of the rest of us. This is the Democratic playing field, and it’s more relevant today than at any time since the 1930s.

[…]

The 2012 economy won’t be as bad as the 1936 economy, hopefully. But it won’t be nearly as good as the 1996 economy. For a president running in 2012, 1936 is the more relevant.

Flying Whale

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There is no left-wing politics in the United States

January 26, 2010

Exhibit 3,427: this happened last night.

I was not really mentally prepared to watch Jared Bernstein, former senior economist at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, defend the idea of a spending freeze in the middle of a recession, but this debate between him and Rachel Maddow is worth watching for the administration’s justification of this move. Maddow doesn’t give an inch but gives Bernstein a chance to make his case.

While my initial reaction was pretty extreme (something like Paul Krugman’s), if the administration defense is right, this may not actually mean all that much in a real economic sense, and might just be a move to try to gain support among the general populace that has bought into the frame that excessive government spending is the biggest problem we face economically.

That’s appalling in and of itself, of course. The left has spent its entire existence fighting against the misguided notion that government is bad. That the Obama administration is now feeding this narrative (in a knee-jerk panic reaction to a bad election result) is massively disappointing. Even if this is all words and no real meaningful action, the words matter.

For more, Andrew Sullivan has a nice summary of the range of blogger reactions.

Flying Whale

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Biden and the Vice-Presidency

October 15, 2009

There’s a very interesting article at Newsweek about Joe Biden’s role in the administration as Obama’s foil on certain issues. Cover story, if I’m not mistaken (but I’m all Digital Age and haven’t seen a hard copy version of Newsweek in ages, so I don’t actually know for sure). Fascinating reading, for insights into Biden’s personality, Obama and Biden’s relationship, and the role of a vice president more generally.

Essentially, the article paints Biden as being unafraid to oppose Obama and the bulk of his advisers if he feels they’re about to do something silly, yet willing to fall in line for the public to give an appearance of consensus within the administration. One of the chief issues of contention is Obama’s war in Afghanistan (yes, I thought about that possessive before writing it).

And here’s Arianna Huffington going off the deep end, her response to the article being that Biden should resign in protest of the war in Afghanistan. Come on – exit over voice already? Did she even bother to read the article? The whole thrust of it is that Biden could very well end up being a very effective voice within the administration. Not to mention that “Biden has been incorrectly characterized as a dove who wants to pull out of Afghanistan. In fact, according to his ‘Counterterrorism-Plus’ paper, he wants to maintain a large troop presence.”

I don’t follow Huffington because I find Huffington Post an incomprehensibly designed website (not to mention sensationalistically sexist). Is she always this bizarre?

Flying Whale

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Hey, someone gave a speech last night

September 10, 2009

So I sort of lied about no posts for a while, but I didn’t lie about no substantive posts, as this is merely a miniature link dump. The lefty blogosphere responded pretty positively to Obama’s healthcare speech to Congress last night, and Rep. Joe Wilson gave them a convenient punching bag to rile up the believers. There are any number of insightful posts I could link to, but I’ll limit myself to three.

First, Ezra Klein gives a positive, if sober, assessment of the speech. Second, two posts at Open Left offer opposing, if not directly contradictory, views: Daniel de Groot applauds Obama’s sweeping defense of liberalism, while unsurprisingly, David Sirota provides the loudest dissenting voice from the left, with the rather biting post title “Reviewing President Rahm Emanuel’s Health Care Speech.”

The difference? Sirota is refusing to resign himself to Obama’s centrism. The rest of the liberal blogosphere appears to have done just that, at least for now. Ultimately, I’m not sure which attitude is more productive.

Flying Whale

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Obama mobilizes the troops

September 3, 2009

I’m sure some of you received the same email I just did, the one with the From: field occupied by “President Barack Obama.” It’s a DNC email, of course, asking for monetary support to help pass health care reform. It includes these two sentences:

The pundits told us it was impossible — that the donations working people could afford and the hours volunteers could give would never loosen the vise grip of big money and powerful special interests. We proved them wrong.

Did we really? I’m not seeing it.

But that’s not why I’m moved to write about this. I’m moved to write about this because it is fairly unprecedented – a president using the massive email list that he built during his campaign and attempting to mobilize them to help him pass a key policy initiative. This has never happened before, and my concerns come in two closely related flavors.

First, Obama’s list is very likely an enormous list of people who are not activists. Moreover, it’s an enormous list of people without a defined politics. It’s people who were fed up with George W. Bush, people who were taken in by Obama’s personality, or his (deserved) unique appeal as the first African-American president, or his elegant rhetoric. It’s not a homogeneous group of people dedicated to any particular policy agenda or ideology. This is not necessarily a huge concern, but it does create an interesting dynamic – how will these people respond to a specific policy request? Will they tune out, will they do whatever Obama asks them to do, or will it be something in between?

Secondly, and more significantly, if the result of this is closer to “they’ll do whatever Obama asks them to do,” does this represent a significant expansion of executive power? No president has ever before had a direct line to his supporters like this. If Obama can use his supporters to change the course of legislation in Congress, what does that do to checks and balances?

I’m not sure what the answers are, or if this is actually anything to be worried about. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Flying Whale