The SOTU: Steph Responds (Part I)

Okay — now that I have some time, I’m going to go through the published text of President Obama’s State of the Union Address and respond wherever I feel moved to respond. Get some popcorn and settle in.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

You know, I honestly want to believe this sentiment, Mr. President. I really do. But I learned an entirely different lesson in the wake of the Tucson massacre. I learned that many people who seem perfectly decent – people with whom I’ve had countless pleasant conversations over the past few years – secretly believe that I’m a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, violent, racist idiot. That didn’t put me in the mood to be cooperative, nor did it convince me that “we all just want the same things.”

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

Yet housing prices remain in the toilet, wages are stagnant, and the unemployment rate is still above 9%. Something’s not computing here. If you can explain this to me, please do.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children.

That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.

We did that in December. Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today.

Wait — I’m confused. Are you referring to the extension of the Bush tax cuts? First of all, that was not a tax cut; tax rates were maintained, not reduced. Secondly, if I recall correctly, you didn’t agree to sign that tax cut extension into law until we agreed to extend unemployment benefits. Yet now you’re going to take credit for something that was our idea?

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

That solar research facility is run by an American company — Applied Materials. It is true that certain cities and regions in China offer subsidies for green energy, but Applied Materials also elected to set up shop in China because China is a huge market and a great source for cheap engineers.

Moreover, as my co-author pointed out in a previous post, China may be building “green” energy facilities, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese are using those facilities. Why are we holding them up as an example to follow?

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

As the sibling of a scientist, I certainly acknowledge the role of government in funding research. But has that facilitated innovation or slowed it down? Why, for example, is our space program frozen at the shuttle stage? Why have we stopped going to the moon? And why did it take two tries to get the Hubble telescope to focus correctly? Before we “invest” in your favorite industries, I think questions like these need to be answered.

In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

This sounds great, but where’s the money coming from?

At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

Ah. I see the plan now. There’s just one problem, though: the supposed “subsidies” we are giving to oil and gas are, in many cases, not industry specific. The provision that allows oil and gas corporations to defer taxes on income earned abroad, for example, is a provision available to all multinational companies based in the U.S. On the other hand, “green” energy is already getting a lot of targeted government cash. Take a look at the subsidies that are funneled into the ethanol industry, for instance. Ethanol was supposed to be a great alternative biofuel. It has failed to deliver, however, so why not make the cut there? Or are you too afraid to piss off corn farmers in Iowa?

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

It seems rather insulting for you to start your education spiel with a lecture to parents about their responsibilities, Mr. President. I think most parents take their children’s education very seriously indeed. That’s why urban charter schools have to turn away thousands of desperate families every year.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.

If that’s true, that’s very sad. As others have pointed out, the few billion dollars we’ve poured into Race to the Top is a drop in the bucket compared to the funding our schools get from the individual states. And, unfortunately, at the state level, teachers unions still have a lot of sway.

You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said “Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.”

Apparently, this miracle came about when Mrs. Waters told the teachers unions to sit on this and rotate. Why omit that fact, Mr. President?

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

I agree 100% with these statements — but do you have any concrete policy ideas? I do. For example, why don’t we end tenure, radically restructure our ed schools so that they focus on content rather than pedagogy, and establish differential pay for math and science teachers? If you’re willing to take on the teachers unions on these issues, I’ll stand behind you.

If we take these steps — if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take — we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

But will they actually know anything by the time they get their degrees? Standards are creeping downward at our institutions of higher learning as well. In college, kids can learn how to critique television shows from a Marxist perspective, but can they get solid academic instruction that will properly prepare them for today’s global marketplace? Recent news suggests not.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

I actually agree that those individuals who come to the U.S. on legal student visas should be fast-tracked through the citizenship process — especially those who study science, math, and engineering. I don’t believe, however, that we should be rewarding open violations of our laws. It’s terribly sad that many young people must be burdened with the consequences of their parents’ decisions, but if you announce to the world that we as a country will educate the children of undocumented aliens with no questions asked, you will almost surely exacerbate what is already a crisis situation at our southern border. That’s the reality.

Our infrastructure used to be the best — but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”

Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.

We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.

Really? Can you assure me, Mr. President, that infrastructure projects will not be awarded to your union buddies? Personally, I doubt your promises, especially when you propose projects like the following:

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

We Americans have grown accustomed to the flexibility that a car provides — and for longer trips, we generally prefer planes. Amtrak has been propped up by the government for years now because of its piddly transportation market share. High speed rail would have to increase passenger miles by train by a factor of 100 to compete with air travel. Is that really likely? Or is this just another boondoggle designed to put money in your cronies’ pockets?

(Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds)

To be continued tomorrow…

One thought on “The SOTU: Steph Responds (Part I)

  1. A few comments about transportation.

    1) I like trrains better than planes for moderate-length trips. Most Americans would agree at this point. Projects that link cities by 3-6 hour train rides (Buffalo to Boston, DC tyo Atlanta, New York to Pittsburgh, Chicago to Green Bay, Cleveland to Cincy etc) are more likely to succeed than projects that try to link east and west coast or NE US to Florida. If Amtrakk were smart, they'd make money by abandoning long-distance rail travel and focusing on short-hops where it actually pays to 100 mph for 4 hours without a security hold-up rather than go 400 mph for 2 hours in the air but have to get there 2 hours early to get through security. I'll support moderate-length rail-building, but not big projects.

    2) South Korea has as much total land mass as (wait for it)…MARYLAND! Of course they're building planes trains and modern public transport…they HAVE TO! Such things work in a small, cramped space that's basically new. Comparing us to South Korea is like comparing Rhode Island to Texas. It's stupid. They can use trains and cover their whole country in an hour. It will take some massive breakthroughs in tech to make it faster to take rail to California from New York than to fly. We aren't there yet.

    3) Comparing America (an already established power) to rising powers when it comes to the rate of investment in infrastrcture is also moronic. We've ALREADY BUILT our roads…they haven't. What…should we keep building roads in perpetuity, Barack? Befor you know it, we'll have quintuple-decker highways that clover-loop and cover over farm lands just because Obama needs an excuse to spend money on public works so his cronies have a cozy life in their union-sponsored mansions…and those roads won't go anywhere toward solving traffic congestion. We don't need more roads…we need to fix the ones we have and we need to work on making air travel less of a pain in the ass. Period.

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