Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union

There was a State of the Union speech last night. When it was over my son texted me for my thoughts. I had to confess to him that I hadn't watched. That's probably a bad thing, an unsatisfactory example of civic disengagement on my part. I almost feel bad. I can remember a time when I wouldn't have missed it. That was back when I had a more exalted view of the process, back before I was tasked with the job of paying for it all, back before I had much experience dealing with the federal government in the very real world of business ownership. Those were the days.

I'm informed by my much more optimistic and much less jaded son that the President proposed a treasure trove of new benefits and entitlements for the middle class, things like expanded child care tax credits and paid maternity and sick leave. "Why are we the only advanced nation on earth that doesn't have these things," the President asked. This on top of his new free community college for all proposal of last week, all paid for by a tax on the richest 1%, which my son gleefully pointed out doesn't include me! " You're off the hook Dad, relax."

That's great to know...that I'm off the hook. It's also encouraging to hear that the President actually at least tacitly admitted that all of these wonderful new free things are not really free, that somebody's taxes will have to be raised to "pay" for them. This amounts to political progress, I suppose. Who could possibly object to taxes being raised on a handful of billionaires, right? And what cold-hearted child hating person could possibly object to paid maternity leave?  Talk about your low-hanging fruit?

One is left to wonder why the President waited until his party lost both houses of Congress to go all
FDR on us. Perhaps he is as cynical as he accuses his opponents of being. Maybe he knows that he
and his party can get the benefit of being seen as "concerned" about the middle class without having
to go to the trouble of actually getting these programs passed and administered. Then they can run in the next election against the obstructionists in the other party. " It's those nasty Republicans standing between you and all of this cool free stuff!" Good strategy actually.

Let me try to answer the President's question. He asked  rhetorically, " why is it that we are the only advanced nation on earth without paid maternity leave?" By asking the question, he is clearly suggesting that this is a grand failure on our part, that despite our wealth and power we have failed our citizens by not adequately protecting them from the vagaries of life. My answer is this... The reason we don't provide the sort of cradle to grave social safety net that is common in much of Europe is the fact that up until maybe twenty years ago a majority of Americans felt that it wasn't the proper role of government to do such a thing. Even FDR' s signature achievement, Social Security, was made possible by and is still sustained by the notion that it is most definitely NOT a welfare plan.
It is a retirement plan that we CONTRIBUTE to. Americans have had for most of our history this
quaint notion that we are responsible for our own lives. We haven't wanted or needed a bunch of do-gooders from Washington or anywhere else coming in telling us what to do. This fiercely independent streak has in no small part been responsible for this nation's astounding and unprecedented rise from colony status a mere 250 years ago to the world-striding powerhouse of today. It has also been the reason that our shores have been the beacon for millions fleeing places with much more intrusive governments than our own. For most of our history, Americans have thought it ridiculous that we would tax the man down the street or across the State in order to force an employer to pay someone else to stay home after the birth of a child. Sure it's a nice thought, but not something that any government should have the right to INSIST upon.

But, the times, they are a changin'. Most Americans I would imagine think that all of these free things are a great idea. Why shouldn't we be more like France? Especially, since it's only the "rich" who will have to pay for it all.

I believe that the future belongs to the Democrats. There are far more voters who are middle class than there are millionaires and billionaires. There are many more voters who want more from their government than there are those who want the government to leave them alone. I hope it works out. But my reading of history and my experience with government is that entitlements that are sold as being free or that are described as benefits that will be financed by the idle rich have a way of morphing into something that costs an awful lot more than advertised. And when that happens, it won't be my generation who gets stuck with the bill.