Chutes and Ladders: The State of the Union

I watched the State of the Union last night. I wasn’t sure CNN was ever going to break away from coverage of the renegade LA policeman. Dorner was trapped in a cabin, so we were treated to long range shots of something burning in the woods. But eventually I heard Wolf Blitzer’s voice, and we saw the usual meet and greet ceremony.

In, Cataloging Weaknesses in the State of the Union Address, (cross-posted to dagblog), David Coates writes a solid critique of President Obama’s 2013 address. He objects to Obama’s opening line that, “the state of the union is strong.” I agree that the union is seriously challenged, but claiming that it is strong has become presidential boilerplate since Jimmy Carter’s so-called malaise speech. Actually saying that the union is not strong would be begging to become politically irrelevant. To quote George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in Easy Rider:

I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are.

So don’t ever expect a President to admit that this isn’t still, “a hell of a good country.” I was pleased to hear Obama suggest that we get serious about investing in our infrastructure, and that we address immigration and firearm safety. On the other hand, while he trumpeted our new domestic “oil”, natural gas, wind and solar he didn’t mention the environmental costs that each incur. Fracking was not mentioned. Pipeline spills were not mentioned.

Poor people were mentioned. Coates’ main objection is that while the President at least addressed poverty last night, his proposals were far too mild to actually change anything:

To politicians blind to the inequalities which surround us, the state of the union may look great inside the beltway, at least if you’re not one of the 19% of Washington DC’s residents who are struggling with low pay or unemployment. But please, can we stop pretending that it is possible to be genuinely progressive in modern America without making the alleviation of poverty our absolute top priority. And can we stop pretending too that if we create “ladders into the middle class,” the problem of poverty will somehow vanish.  It will not. Ladders only help people leave poverty behind. They don’t remove poverty; they simply enable a favored few to escape from it. Societies only remove poverty by eradicating it – by raising the floor for everyone – and that eradication, and thereby the creation of a genuinely strong union, requires policies that are far more radical than any that surfaced in last night’s Address.

Have you ever played Chutes and Ladders? The real problem with eliminating poverty is that there are more chutes taking you down and out of the middle class than ladders up into it. Obama can provide a few symbolic ladders, but all those chutes are set up by an overclass that is desperately trying to hang on to their relative wealth. The government works for the wealthy, and even as the middle class groans and contracts, no President will be allowed to tamper with profitable chutes.

Societies have functioned with poverty, and with large majorities of essentially invisible poor people throughout history. What is changing in America is that we are letting ourselves return to the norm.

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