Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inappropriate Inaugural Logic

Jon Favreau wrote President Obama's inaugural address. Just to be clear, this post is about his words, not Obama's presentation of them.

I tend to be a logical person, which is not surprising for a math instructor. Also, since I live in Oregon I had very little emotional involvement with the presidential race since my state's electoral college votes were entirely predictable.

So I read Obama's inaugural address calmly and logically, which is of course not at all how an inaugural address is intended to be heard.

One sentence jumped out as my favorite. It succinctly says something that should be said quite often.
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.
That statement does not only apply to national leaders, but is a warning for everyone.

I had written earlier about the proposed civilian force. Since that blog post I've decided the proposal, although still scary, is actually brilliant. Since a president can never implement all of his campaign promises this promise provides Obama with an open door to attempt all sorts of things, with no obligation to be successful because, after all, the experiment was crippled since the proposal never was attempted in its entirety. The speech included several paragraphs along these lines:
As we consider the role that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who at this very hour patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are the guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service -- a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

And yet at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
Not as alarming as it could have been. We can expect to hear about "service" to the government as part of "finding meaning in something greater than yourself". We can expect to hear about the "responsibility" and "duties to our nation" and "price of citizenship". But the examples given did not involve new programs but typical helpfulness and established virtues. I do not expect Uncle Sam to soon start taking a percentage of my time as well as my income.

I also wrote about using taxes to distribute welfare. Here is where my logical mind most deviated from what Mr. Favreau intended.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
Taken literally and logically these paragraphs ask that the government employ as many Americans as possible with nice pay, benefits and retirement--and businesses to exist primarily to provide taxes to support so many government jobs. I'm sure that is not the actual proposal, especially since that plan has been unintentionally troubling Britain since 1997.

I did not like seeing a false claim tucked in those paragraphs: that the mortgage-liquidity crisis is a result of insufficient government oversight. To the contrary, the crisis was primarily a result of government meddling in what should have been normal market forces, although the blame is not quite that simple. It was grievous enough for a media supportive of the Democrats to be quiet about this during 2008; for the new President to repeat the claim after safely winning the election is inexplicable dishonesty. Far preferable would be to remove politicians such as Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, who are largely responsible for the mess, from any role in attempting to fix it.

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