Trump’s State of the Union deserves a full response.
It was bad enough to sit through the deceptions and lies in the description of the national economy—where very small actual gains (smallest annual reduction in unemployment in any three-year period since the 2008 crash; worst real wage growth at low unemployment in at least 40 years) were bought at enormously high cost (1.4T tax cut that went directly to Wall Street through artificial earnings and stock buybacks; nothing for infrastructure, education, opioid epidemic, etc.).
However, all of that is just the beginning. Many commentators have made that point (although many talking-head economists have done the country a disservice by exaggerating the benefits and ignoring the costs).
The real issue is that you would never guess that we live in crucial times for this country and the world. You might expect that now I’m going to talk about climate change. But even that is only a piece of it. Only in the “I don’t have to care” world of today’s Republican Party is the State of the Union grounds for applause.
We are presiding over the demise of America’s promise in irresponsibility, incompetence, and simple vanity. Let’s go down a list.
- Climate change
On climate change there can be no question of the urgency and magnitude of the challenge. Science has given us a carbon budget we have to meet. The administration denies all of it and works systematically to undermine world progress. As we’ve noted before, if we act today we have the elements of victory—but we also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.
Inaction on this subject is a grave risk to ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity.
- World economic order
The elephant hiding in plain sight is the growth of the Chinese economy. We are in the process of being supplanted as the world’s largest economy, and the room for growth there is enormous—China is already our equal by some measures, but their per-capita income still ranks only as 108th! The world is preparing a new international order, and we’re in danger of missing the boat.
We have a chance to define notions of trade that open markets everywhere and embrace standards for wages and working conditions, environmental concerns (including climate change), and human rights. In some sense this is a necessary complement to what’s needed for climate change. However we are losing leverage for that enterprise every day.
We’ve taken the position (without exaggeration) that God has chosen us to rule, so we should abolish all international norms that might constrain our behavior. With the growth of China that’s a losing game. Even today we were unable to dictate to China in our trade war, and it’s China—not us—that’s the biggest foreign market for European cars. We’re not going to be calling the shots forever, and without rules it’s their game. In this Trump is not defending the US interest against the Chinese, he’s defending his personal dictatorial power against the interest of the country. We have a very limited window to take back the promise.
There will always be changes in technology, but the pace of change has reached the point where we have to keep up or lose. This affects all aspects of our success as a country: our national income, the jobs of our workers, the strength of our military.
Instead of recognizing that reality we’ve got our head in the sand. Some examples:
– We’ve done everything possible to discredit scientists and science generally, and for climate change and environment protection in particular.
– We’ve disbanded scientific advisory councils in government.
– We’ve had multiple State of the Union addresses where the only mention of education was vocational.
– We’ve killed net neutrality, thereby sacrificing new enterprises to the interests of the phone companies.
– On 5G and AI the government has come late to the party, without real plans. For 5G in particular we’re actually asking our allies just to wait until we’ve figured out some alternative to Huawei. This is worse than a failure of planning—5G applications are what’s most important, and waiting is punting that stage of technology back to the Chinese.
– More generally there’s simply no understanding of the importance of government in funding exploratory research—for technologies before the stage where private companies can run with them. The tax cuts included a targeted punishment for major research universities.
– Finally the current rampant xenophobia flies in the face of the past and current contributions of foreigners to our technological strength. We must continue to be the destination of choice for entrepreneurs looking to realize their visions.
We are simply ignoring the technological challenges and what has made us successful. God only helps those who help themselves.
- Nuclear proliferation
This may seem a more limited issue, but that’s only because it hasn’t hit yet. There are still only a limited number of players, largely under control. But we’re doing everything possible to change that.
We’ve not only presented the world with the contrast in our treatments of North Korea and Iran, we’ve argued specifically for nations to do what it takes for their own defense. We’ve eschewed the sort of international cooperation necessary to prevent new entrants. And we’ve given Saudi Arabia nuclear material and technology without asking any questions at all.
The only reason we were less worried about this in the past was that world leaders had all recognized the nature of the threat. We’re no longer keeping our eyes on the ball. Nuclear technology gets ever easier. As more entrants join the nuclear club, it gets harder to control their behavior and prevent the further sale of nuclear technology to third-parties of whatever ilk. The North Koreans have done it before.
The clock is ticking.
- National ideals
It’s shocking how shallow the support for democracy has turned out to be. In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” many people had to die for the dictators to take over. The reality was much easier.
Democracy is not a luxury. It is key to what made this country what it is. We were never perfect, but we were much more a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” than had ever existed before.
We’re losing all of that right down the line:
– We’ve reversed our progress in expanding suffrage, and are now looking for reasons to block people from voting. The Citizens United ruling put rich people and corporations in control of elections. Deliberate voter suppression by state governments is stated Republican policy.
– Support for public education is declining, and funding is still below 2008 levels.
– Upward mobility is now below that of most other developed countries.
– The religious right is in charge of what happens to women’s bodies.
– We’ve lost the social cohesion needed for big national efforts. The President no longer even pretends to represent the nation—he’s a warlord who delivers spoils for his supporters.
There are plenty of historical examples of how hard it is to reclaim democracy once it’s gone. If we’re going to have the strength of a country by and for the people, things had better change fast.
We live in a crucial time. On one hand we could even see massive destruction of humanity; on the other we could see an unprecedented level of international cooperation as a precursor to a very prosperous and peaceful world.
One thing we can’t do is ignore the reality of our time. We can’t afford the “I don’t have to care” puffery of this criminally fictitious State of the Union.