Winning the Future?

Taking into account the fact that I had to create a new category to tag this post, it’s fair to say I don’t write about politics or news much. For one, in terms of news at least, I feel like there is a responsibility to educate oneself with facts from the most impartial and objective sources (realizing that true objectivity is rare to the point of nonexistence), then consider multiple points of view in an open-minded and balanced manner, before weighing in. Although I read a few news articles every day from The New York Times and get the headlines from Slate, which I think does a good job of culling interesting items from a variety of sources, I am not as educated as I would like to be about goings-on domestic and international. This is not to say that I don’t have opinions about issues, but in terms of writing about them, I would want to do more research first. Which brings me to my second point, which is that there is a wealth of thoughtful political writing on the internet (along with all the ranting), and that’s just not my niche. I like writing posts about food and books and small sorts of adventures, which is what I’ve been doing here for the past year and a half, more or less. Plus, most of the people who read this blog know me, and if you are desperate for my keen insight on a particular political issue…well, ask away.

That said, I watched President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night on whitehouse.gov, which had the benefit of having (a) no commercials and (b) a sidebar with illustrative charts and graphs. I wasn’t so keen on the theme of his speech, “Winning the Future.” Progress is all well and good, but doesn’t our “winning” imply that others must lose? For a person who places so much emphasis on cooperation, in this speech there was a distinct note of competition – particularly when Obama invoked Sputnik. Not that Obama was demonizing the Russians; instead, he was pointing out other countries’ students’ test scores and graduation rates – definitely an area where the US, as a report card might say, “Needs Improvement.”

Education was Obama’s second main point, after “Innovation,” and before “Building” (i.e. infrastructure), “Responsibility,” and “Barriers.” Speaking about the state of education in the US, Obama said, “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.” This is an admirable sentiment, but it involves changing more than just the educational system, which is a huge task in itself; it involves changing the way people think about the value of education, and the importance of teachers. Looking at it from a financial perspective, our society doesn’t place much value on teachers at all; teaching is one of the most underpaid professions there is. (And speaking of undervalued – Obama didn’t mention libraries at all, but cutting library services from the school budget is not the way to help students achieve better results.)

After education, Obama spoke about infrastructure, and not just repairing the roads and bridges we already have, but laying the groundwork (tracks, that would be) for high-speed rail. Let me say, HURRAY FOR TRAINS. We are so far behind other countries on this one – most of Europe, Russia, Asia – and I am so looking forward to this becoming a reality. Faster than driving, better for the environment than flying (and without the pat-down, as Obama pointed out, though this, like all his other jokes last evening, fell flat). Yes, after much research and consideration, I am prepared to support the president in this endeavor with the following statement: fast trains are cool and we should have them.

Obama then tackled the subject of responsibility, and said some brave and honest things. Some of the points he made were just plain common sense – but how often do you hear that in government? It can be a struggle not to be cynical; speeches often sound good but lack follow-though. However, the fact that our president wants to face issues like fiscal responsibility and the necessity of structural (re)organization of the government, rather than ignore them and leave them for the next administration (and generation) to deal with…it’s an improvement. It’s something.

Last night, on the topic of responsibility, Obama said, “We are living with a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people’s pockets. But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” He went on, “Let me take this one step further. We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and efficient. We cannot win the future with a government of the past…In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America” (emphasis mine).

Obama concluded by speaking about “Barriers” – obstacles to these goals. He addressed Americans’ cynicism and lack of faith and promised more transparency in government, giving specific examples. He said, “In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government. Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history…A 21st century government that’s open and competent. A government that lives within its means.” That does sound good, doesn’t it? But, he was quick to point out, “We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools; changing the way we use energy; reducing our deficit – none of this is easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law. Of course, some countries don’t have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they get a railroad – no matter how many homes are bulldozed. If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written. And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

Well, that might be taking it a little far. There are, Obama himself pointed out earlier in the evening, some other democratic countries that have their act together a little better than we do at present. But because I have no plans to move anytime soon, and because it’s gonna be the future soon…Win, Team America!

Full text of President Obama’s State of the Union speech from The Huffington Post.

What I’m reading: Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde
What I’m listening to: Jonathan Coulton

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