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Monday, February 6, 2006
The State of the Union Speech: Domestic Policy, except Education

The President mentioned immigration, energy independence, health care, and entitlements. So will I. There was even a good, positive Bill Clinton joke.

Here continue my notes on last Tuesday's State of the Union speech by President Bush. Why the delay, you wonder? Well, there was Groundhog Day to celebrate, and one must also attend to LBB occasionally. Life Beyond the Blog, that is.

Earlier I addressed foreign policy; here, it's domestic policy, except education, a separate post. I have some quibbles.

Turning mostly to domestic matters in the latter part of the speech, President began with these insights. (No quibbles with these general expressions.)

Our economy is healthy and vigorous, and growing faster than other major industrialized nations. In the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs -- more than Japan and the European Union combined. (Applause.) Even in the face of higher energy prices and natural disasters, the American people have turned in an economic performance that is the envy of the world.

The American economy is preeminent, but we cannot afford to be complacent. In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors, like China and India, and this creates uncertainty, which makes it easier to feed people's fears. So we're seeing some old temptations return. Protectionists want to escape competition, pretending that we can keep our high standard of living while walling off our economy. Others say that the government needs to take a larger role in directing the economy, centralizing more power in Washington and increasing taxes. We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy -- even though this economy could not function without them. (Applause.) All these are forms of economic retreat, and they lead in the same direction -- toward a stagnant and second-rate economy.

There was talk of making temporary tax relief permanent (good) and cutting government programs that don't work (good if it happens). He expressed pleasure that Congress is talking about eliminating earmarks, which is very good, if it happens. I'll take my cue from the biblical Thomas here: I'll believe it when I see it.

Discussion of entitlements came next, bringing what I thought was the most humorous line of the speech:

This year, the first of about 78 million baby boomers turn 60, including two of my Dad's favorite people -- me and President Clinton.

I haven't read the talking heads' commentary on the speech yet, but I'm going to guess that some conservatives took the President to task for backing off from his earlier proposal to reform Social Security, which is basically dead, and proposing instead a commission to examine Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, in light of the looming crisis. We'll see how it goes, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Sometimes, if you find you're attacking with little effect, you back off and find a more vulnerable point to attack. Maybe this is the only way to get reforms through Congress; maybe not even this will work. It's too soon to tell.

I would like to have seen more substance on immigration. This is what we got:

Keeping America competitive requires an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values, and serves the interests of our economy. Our nation needs orderly and secure borders. (Applause.) To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. (Applause.) And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty, allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally, and reduces smuggling and crime at the border. (Applause.)

In foreign policy, this President's words and actions have been closely linked. In domestic policy, and particularly with respect to immigration, there isn't much action to go with the talk. And he's still not touching an essential feature of any effective approach to illegal immigration: Making it difficult to live in the US as an illegal immigrant. If the illegals were unable to get driver licenses, wire money home (across the border), or access subsidized education, health care, etc., the problem at the border would be a lot more manageable. That said, I'm not opposed to immigrants, not in the least. But I am very much in favor of one of those core American values, the rule of law. I think we can have both: a healthy, abundant stream of legal immigrants and effective enforcement of prudent laws against illegals.

Let's now parse his paragraphs on health care. These are direct quotations, except for my comments in blue and in [brackets] and the "(applause)" notations.

Keeping America competitive requires affordable health care. [True!] (Applause.) Our government has a responsibility to provide health care for the poor and the elderly [Highly debatable! Our society may have such a responsibility, but that doesn't necessarily mean government does.], and we are meeting that responsibility. [True.] (Applause.) For all Americans -- for all Americans, we must confront the rising cost of care, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship, and help people afford the insurance coverage they need. [Possibly fine, but my wallet is twitching.] (Applause.)

We will make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology, to help control costs and reduce dangerous medical errors. [Fine, we have the technology.] We will strengthen health savings accounts -- making sure individuals and small business employees can buy insurance with the same advantages that people working for big businesses now get. [A rare breath of sanity about health care!] (Applause.) We will do more to make this coverage portable, so workers can switch jobs without having to worry about losing their health insurance. [Good! But watch the cost.] (Applause.) And because lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice -- leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB/GYN [Appalling!] -- I ask the Congress to pass medical liability reform this year. [Necessary -- and possible, I hope.] (Applause.)

Next topic: We're addicted to oil, not that that's news, and the President proposes to reduce that by 75 percent over the next 20 years, mostly  by increasing research funding to develop new technologies. He said, "We are on the threshold of incredible advances." Could be, but you never really know until you actually have made the advances and look back.

I can imagine a more radical approach, though I'm not ready to advocate it. I think the political consequences would be catastrophic for the ruling party, for at least a decade, and we can't afford to have that other party ruling at all in their present condition. We can barely afford the party we have. Whatever the long-term advantages of energy independence, they may not be worth that price. But here it is, anyway.

If the President were really serious about making us independent of foreign oil, and if he were politically suicidal, he might try to fund the effort with a large gasoline tax, to help encourage the switch from gasoline to domestically produced ethanol, which obviously would not be taxed. But I doubt that Congress would ever pass such a thing; imagine the public outcry if gasoline were suddenly $5.00 per gallon, and most of it were tax! (Unlike the White House, the House and Senate don't have term limits, you know.) As a colleague noted, we'd want to avoid a tax on diesel, at least at first, to avoid crippling the transportation industry, but even so, the short-term cost of the transition to the average American consumer would be significant and in some cases very difficult to bear.

Imagine the pain of such a transition! Imagine the reprisals at the ballot box! We won't convert until we have no alternative -- in other words, when the actual price of gasoline goes up and stays a lot higher than it has lately. Meanwhile, I guess we'll see if "half measures," as Yevgeny Yevtushenko called them, will work at all, or if the problem will simply remain unsolved.

There was some talk of cultural and ethical matters, which you can read yourself, and I'll address my last topic, education, in my next post.

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