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THE STATE OF THE UNION – THE ECONOMY

01/31/11-by L.S. Carbonell
If one were to put a lowest to highest 1 to 10 rating on things about the State of the Union Address that Republicans hated, President Obama’s ideas for rebuilding our economy would probably rate a 10. They are attacking the President’s ideas as just more worthless stimulus spending when, according to House Speaker John Boehner “The American people have spoken. They want us to cut spending.” More on Boehner’s hubris later. First, the economy.

This morning I was scrolling through My Yahoo news page and stopped to read a story about Chrysler’s progress in recovering from bankruptcy. Among a surprising number of positive comments I ran across a guy screeching about never buying foreign-made cars. Italy’s Fiat owns 20% of Chrysler. After I got done laughing, I wished him luck finding an all-American-made bicycle. Therein lies the chasm. One side of our society thinks we can turn back the clock and reclaim those jobs that were outsourced to China and reopen all those factories if we just eliminate regulations and taxes, and the other side knows there is no going back and those days and those jobs are gone forever. One side is in deep denial and the other side is screaming at the top of their lungs “Wake up, dummies, and see what’s happened!”

Or as a ninety-year-old friend put it “been there, done that.”

Mankind did not progress from hunting and gathering to a service economy without some pretty traumatic steps in between. There is very little difference between the auto worker who was replaced by a robot and the lamplighter who lost his job to electricity. While people remember the economic and industrial growth of the post-World War II era, they don’t remember the almost twenty-year upheaval that took place before it. Our economy collapsed in 1929. The way out of that collapse involved remaking our economy, not just restoring it. Then the war effort forced us to become a manufacturing powerhouse, just to supply the materials needed for our troops. So many things that we take for granted today didn’t exist just 80 years ago, not the cell phone and cable TV, but basics like electricity in almost every home, the interstate highway system, water and sewer systems in every town, suburbs. We had actually gone through the same upheaval a couple of times before, as our economy shifted from pure agriculture to trade and agriculture and then into the Industrial Revolution. Most of those shifts had involved recessions and depressions. Depressions, recessions and economic meltdowns are not 20th century innovations.

All the warning signs had been there for the past thirty years or so. More robotics, more electronics, less dependency on human intervention. Jobs were being phased out all around us, jobs like telephone operators and typesetters and Gregg stenographers. Jobs and factories were being moved to places with lower wages and less protection for workers, first from New England to the Carolinas and then to Central America. But we ignored the warnings. Only one President in the past thirty years had looked at the situation and tried to do something about it – Bill Clinton. He put in place penalties for companies that moved overseas and set up their corporate headquarters in tax shelter countries. But with the Republicans controlling the Congress for six of his eight years, there wasn’t much he could do to start transitioning our economy into the 21st century. He was too busy dealing with his sex life. If you are as addicted to British television as I am, you got a glimpse of what we were facing. Onslow on Keeping Up Appearances was the essence of the economic shift in England that was just slightly ahead of ours – the unemployable, not just the unemployed. Too old to be re-educated, too young to properly retire. He was part of a whole generation that were laid off during the Thatcher years and never worked again. And twenty years of Republican leadership not only ignored it, they colluded with it.

Now, the reality has hit us, at least it’s hit those who choose to see it. Our economy was driven into a ditch, came within inches of going over the cliff and it cannot be restored to what it was in 1955. We need to make the hard decisions and completely reinvent our economy. There is no going back. We either go forward or we wallow.

During the State of the Union Address President Obama said, “Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck, AND good benefits, and the occasional promotion. Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets. I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear – proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. They’re right. The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.”

It was a very restrained way of throwing a bucket of cold water in our faces. He needs to get much more emphatic, hit us with the ice cubes as well as the water.

In amongst the pep rally rhetoric and new slogans, the President laid out his vision for what it will take to reinvent ourselves and our economy: innovation, education and leveling the playing field.

It is normal for a President to fill the gallery with guest “heroes” of one kind or another. President Obama’s guests were examples of his vision of our economic future.

Robert and Gary Allen own a Michigan roofing company. As the home building boom went bust, their business was endangered. With the help of a government loan, they converted their factory to manufacturing solar shingles. Unlike those big ugly solar panels, solar shingles don’t look very different from regular shingles. They are a major advance in solar energy for household use. The company is thriving. And, they paid back the loan. There are thousands of people like the Allen brothers in America, people with ideas for small businesses that just need a jump start. In many ways, the situation is not dissimilar from what President Clinton found around the world as he encouraged the creation of small neighborhood banks that made small loans to start small businesses. Of course, it takes a bit more than a $200 loan for a sewing machine to start a business in America, but the idea is the same. By removing banks from the equation, the idea could be more effective than it would be through the private sector. Loans of every kind get bought and sold between financial institutions, making the loan repayment system unstable.

You are reading one of those innovative small businesses. We don’t make a lot of money. We barely break even. But we have dreams. We’re flexible, as 21st century businesses need to be, we can evolve, and one day, we will rank right up there with the Huffington Post.

The President introduced us to Kathy Proctor to make his point about adult education. She was one of those people who went to work in the neighborhood factory right out of high school. The factory is gone and at 55 she is earning a degree in biotechnology. She is typical of what Thomas Friedman explained in his book The World is Flat. We can only survive the global economy and the 21st century if we are willing to learn new skills and keep learning – not just what we need on the job today, but whatever we might need in the future. It’s the reason my younger daughter became OSHA certified. She didn’t need that in her job as office manager for a construction company. But recently she was laid off during a company re-organization, and that OSHA certification is opening doors for interviews with other companies. She has taken every opportunity that she has had to learn new skills since she finished college. The degree isn’t enough. The President stressed the role of community colleges in overall need to improve our education system. Community colleges are the best place for re-educating adults while they still have jobs and families to raise. We need to re-evaluate the entire “degree” idea and look at certifications in targeted course work.

He also made it clear that No Child Left Behind is a major bust. With some on the right demanding the closure of the Department of Education, we temporarily have no choice but to provide our children at home with what they don’t and won’t learn in school. I don’t mean home educate every child. That’s simply not practical. I do mean what my husband and I did – make learning a love affair, make reading attractive, make sure they are watching more Discovery Channel and less American Idol. And tell them over and over again that anyone who thinks high school was the best years of his/her life is emotionally retarded.

We will have to confront our lousy education system sooner or later, and that will be a battle to rival Gettysburg. We have one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world, on top of one of the shortest school days. We allow our children to not learn 30% of what they are taught. We mark their progress with standardized tests with bubble-in answer sheets instead of essay questions that test their ability to think rationally and critically. We have dumbed down our curriculums. But this is a battle for another day, another presidential term.

Leveling the playing field is not something the President addressed in easy paragraphs. It was spread over the rest of the speech, in his ideas for tax reform, education loans, universal health care, simplified regulations that still protect American workers and the environment. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama seriously mis-spoke when he told Joe the Plumber that we should “redistribute the wealth.” That remark was jumped on by the right wing as proof that he’s a socialist. He should have said we need to redistribute the opportunity for wealth.

Conservatives are notorious for their ignorance of history. They don’t equate The Homestead Act with a government give-away of farm and ranch land. Massive amounts of America’s Great Plains were just given away on a first come first claim basis that sometimes literally involved races to the land. It was the ultimate leveling of the playing field. If you can clear it, you own it, no down payment, no mortgage payments for the land, no income barriers to becoming land owners.

Republicans don’t want to hear that during our economic booms, banks did only two things – provided a safe place to keep your money and loaned money to those who needed it. Simple banking managed to make money for bankers and keep our economy functioning in a stable manner. What our banks and the financial “industry” have become is too unstable to sustain or encourage economic growth.

There is a lot of work to do to reinvent America for the 21st century. The longer we wait, the further behind we fall. There is no going back. The choice we have is simple – stick with the policies and ideas that brought us to this place or move forward. Choosing to move forward is what “Progressive” means. It was the name of Teddy Roosevelt’s party, a call for people to join him in moving into the 20th century. 0ne hundred years later, it’s time to do it again.

I said I’d get back to Boehner. Okay. If I hear Orange John say “The American People…..” one more time, I’m likely to hurl. The 2010 election was not a mandate for Republican policies. The election was fueled by hate and fear and the uncontrolled money of those who collapsed our economy. Those of us who weren’t convinced that President Obama is trying to turn us into the “Union of Soros Socialist States” were basically too beaten down and too tired of the irrelevant arguments to get out and vote. Patience isn’t a common virtue in America and the recovery was taking too long.

During an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Speaker Boehner said that cutting spending would create jobs, because it would eliminate business uncertainty. Huh? What uncertainty is that? How are draconian spending cuts and job creation even related? How does cutting thousands of government jobs cause job creation? How does removing education programs and the safety net for the most vulnerable of us create jobs? Chris Wallace’s father, Mike Wallace, was one of the most aggressive investigative journalists in television history. I guess it’s not hereditary. Chris didn’t ask any of the questions I’ve asked here.

Boehner also said flat out that the President’s plans for investing in our future are dead in the water. The Republicans won’t support any of them because “The American people have spoken. They want spending cuts.” Then he said the TARP program was a waste of money, in spite of the fact that almost all of the money has been repaid and we are probably going to make a handy little profit off it and in complete denial of the fact that he voted for it. He said the stimulus program was a waste of money. Yeah, tax cuts for most Americans would be a waste of money in his book, along with the jobs created in states that didn’t just use the money to plug budget holes.

The American people have spoken? No, we haven’t. Not by a bloody long shot have we spoken. But we still can. We can demand the future, one voice at a time, one e-mail at a time, one letter at a time.

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