February 13, 2013

A few notes on the SOTU Address

After all, it's traditional to say something, and when George W. Bush was delivering these things, they were always good for a laugh.  It's hard to know how to react anymore when listening to the State of the Union Address.  Nothing the President actually says has any importance; the commentators appear to concede that as a matter of course.  It's all about "tone" and "drama" and "framing."  Congress is under no obligation to enact anything the President recommends, of course, but the President has a Constitutional duty to show up from time to time and tell Congress what he thinks they ought to do:

 "He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."  Article 2, Section 3.
Like so many things in our made-for-TV American lives, we've naturally turned these events into a once-a-year, highly-stylized affair, sort of like the Oscars.   There's even a Red Carpet: the President's entrance, with the choice positions near the aisle so you can press the Prez's flesh or  maybe score a bro-hug or exploding fist bump. I realize that times change, and it's unlikely that George Washington would have been handing out exploding fist bumps.  Nevertheless, you get the idea from the Constitution that the Framers were actually suggesting that the Executive coordinate with Congress in an effort to get things done, by periodically meeting with them (not necessarily once a year) and giving them his ideas. There's nothing in there about a "speech;" a speech is an empty ritual.  Yet this is so typical of our unserious times.  All surface, no substance.  You can't televise work sessions effectively, so we get a speech in response to Article 2, Section 3.

I look upon these things as a prime-time Reality version of watching a historical reenactment.  In the audience we have lots of ancient white men who have been in Congress forever, as sclerotic now as the institution they represent.  None of them has had a new idea in the past quarter century, which is why they are content with this performance in which the President urges them to do a lot of things they'll never do, such as expanding the reach of the federal government ever farther.  President Obama now wants Washington, D.C. to take over the country's nursery schools, I think I heard him say. 

The actual "state" of the union would appear to encompass negative trends and developments over the last year; so I would think on a fair reading of the Constitution.  However, a literal description of what's actually going on is not allowed, as contrary to the rules of modern politics.  The campaign never stops.  The President did not make any direct reference to the astonishing growth in the use of food stamps, for example.  Nor did he say directly that the actual number of non-farm American jobs, about 132 million, is just about exactly what it was in January, 2000, 13 years ago.  The labor participation rate (the percentage of working-age adults with employment) is stuck at about 62% and has been stuck there more or less forever.

This is my question:  why not simply say so in the State of the Union?  This graph is not from some Libertarian, bunker-dwelling, paranoid-schizophrenic website that rants and raves about the Bilderberg Group or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  It's from the U.S. Department of Labor.  Why not bring an easel up to the dais and plop this baby up there?  Wouldn't that at least be the beginning of wisdom?  The State of the Union:  "You know what, folks: it just doesn't seem to work for most of us anymore.  Dunno what's wrong, but the economy just doesn't seem to be happening. Maybe we should try doing something really, really different.  That's what I'm Recommending as Necessary and Expedient."

Instead, we get this kind of thing about gasoline usage:

"We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar, with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before, and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen."

Yeah, they've fallen because we're too broke to fill up and drive anywhere.  Gail Tverberg's latest chart on the allocation of this "economizing" from her superb blog, Our Finite World:  
About 7% of the savings in petroleum usage results from our cars getting "twice" the mileage; another 25% (almost four times as much) results from a decrease in VMT, vehicle miles traveled.  Americans just aren't driving as much anymore, because they can't afford gasoline.

An even better idea: why doesn't the President just bring Gail Tverberg up on stage with him and hand her the pointer?  I know, I know, Article 2, Section 3 says "He." But we're bigger than that, aren't we? 

How about this?  Instead of extolling the wonders of increased mileage in autos, and how Americans are determined to save the planet by going broke and leaving their cars in the garage, why don't we build some fricking railroads?  How about suggesting that the able-bodied ride bikes?  Or walk?  You know: how about some ideas

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