Monday, January 21, 2013

We're Finally Back to 1912!

Ok I rarely real-time blog something, but just a few thoughts on the inaugural address before my brain gets polluted by the jumble of reactions in the blogosphere. The speech was MUCH better than I could have expected (which probably means it will get panned). Just like TR in 1912, Obama defended both markets and the welfare state and, even more importantly, linked them (if too subtly) by noting that social insurance frees people to take risks. By today's standards of political-economy discussion, amazing. It was also quite 1912 to note that markets require rules. Fair enough, even if that sounds a bit too much like the simple anti-trust rhetoric of a hundred years ago: I wish he had tried to explain the concept of an externality to idiot nation: sometimes all of us playing by the rules and pursuing profit still harms society (and the environment). The most remarkable phrase Obama used was when he stressed that only "collective action" could solve our biggest problems. I can't believe he had the guts to say that instead of something much blander like "the need to join together" -- I wish they had flashed to Boehner's face at that moment. It was also great that he pointed out that excessive inequality harms not only individuals but the aggregate economy, but, as I frequently complain, I wish he would have explained HOW this is the case ... why not provide an example of a 20-something trapped with too much debt and high rents/home prices who therefore can't purchase very much, which drags profits down for myriad companies? [In the interest of the exchange of competing ideas, you might enjoy reading Paul Krugman's recent skeptical post on the Keynesian consumption function, a good summary of the critique of my assumptions here). And what a historic moment for the gay rights movement: the comments about all love being equal were better than anyone could have hoped for, and the reference to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City (about which most social conservatives were probably clueless)** -- and rhetorically/historically elevating them to the level of Seneca Falls and Selma  -- was remarkable. Wow. Thank you Obama for sticking it to climate change denialialsts (even if you should have added the phrase "human-induced"), and for supporting government-sponsored research. And finally, it's remarkable the extent to which the ghost of the midcentury theologian Reinhold Neibuhr continues to float over Obama. The president's comments about the need to take imperfect action, the results of which won't be seen for a generation (and which will need to be continued and revised by the next generation) were pure Neibuhr. All in all, it was nice to see the president surprise on the upside. It's been a while. Ok, back to my blissful post-election political hiatus.

** Jeanine and I have decided that we would love the data on what percentage of Americans could identify Obama's Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall references. Those of us who teach the U.S. History survey to freshman put the number who know all three at about 5% ...).

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