Saturday, August 30, 2008

Barack Obama’s Vision: less meritocracy, more safety nets; how much Marxism does the country want?

Slight revisions made on Saturday at 6:30 pm
In his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Obama outlined his goals, placing himself squarely within the boundaries of a generic Democrat, especially those enthusiastic about more government safety nets and goodies for "the middle class." That would help him connect with his most troublesome demographic (as identified by Charlie Cook of the Cook Report): whites over fifty years old. Obama knows generic Democrats are outperforming him, so he has apparently decided to join them.

Obama built last night on the blocks that had been set out by the Democratic Party speakers earlier in the week: the soaring rhetoric of Ted Kennedy’s fight for universal health care, the sympathetic bio laid out by Michelle Obama of her husband: a hard working, smart, empathetic family man; a Hillary Clinton who told us if you liked her programs, you’ll like those of Barack Obama; a Bill Clinton, who stamped his endorsement not just on the Obama programs, but on Obama himself and finally a Joe Biden who sought to tie McCain to Bush, arguing McCain would be more of the “same,” having voted for tax breaks for companies that took jobs overseas and having supported a misguided and failed Bush foreign policy.

When you learn of the Obama bio, you are struck by how well Obama did, notwithstanding his shaky family structure. His black Kenyan-born father (whence Barack got his name) abandoned his Kansas-born mother (whence Barack got his accent) and him at the age of two to pursue his Ph. D. in econometrics at Harvard-- and his mother, living then in Hawaii, became a professional academic who, at least some of the time, relied on her parents to raise Barack. Obama was also raised some of the time in Indonesia after his mother re-married.

As Barack himself tells it, he was raised by a hardworking, loving mom and with the help of his hardworking, loving maternal grandparents. Obama had the benefit of a high quality, private high school education, followed by excellent private colleges (Occidental and Columbia) and law school (Harvard), apparently financed in large part by private scholarships and government subsidized loans. Given that background, one might think that Obama would currently be more of a fan of private school choice, i.e., school vouchers, than he is. Indeed, he once said he was open to anything, including school vouchers, to cure the “admittedly intolerable conditions,” in the inner city public schools (“Public Affairs,” June 27, 2002), but that was before he began his run for the U. S. Senate and started his more intense courtship of teachers’ unions.

Obama, of course, is an example of how someone of humble means, with drive, talent and family support, as well as with access to a quality education, can become an enormous success in America. In short, if the Obama story is repeated often in America, even though not always as dramatically as with Barack, America can be called a substantial, if not total, meritocracy. Indeed, Barack, in last night’s speech, noted that the promise, in America, that your kids can achieve whatever they set their mind to, is what sets America apart.

However, what Obama often emphasizes in his speeches is not how to have more meritocracy but how to expand the federal safety net. Last night, he called for a “world-class,” primary and secondary education for all, a college education for those who commit to serve their communities or country, affordable health care for all, continued health insurance for those with major diseases, better mandated family leave laws and equal pay for equal work (whatever that means). Moreover, Obama and those Democrats close to him seem to have little recognition of the societal problems caused by safety nets that are too expansive.

Obama is an example of how America tends to make excellent educations available to those who are smart, work hard, etc. but who may not have the wealth to purchase the education on their own. Of course, having government programs in place to make sure people like Barack Obama get that quality education is a good thing.

The problem is that Team Obama speaks as if it does not understand the drawbacks of a society that gives out world-class education, healthcare, housing, etc. to anyone who just shows up. You don't want to subsidize people who don't know what to do with the education and don't want to work hard to put the education to good use. Who will work hard if you get what you want by simply showing up and asking? These incentive or disincentive issues are something Team Obama just doesn’t get.

For example, earlier this week (Tuesday), Joe Biden joined Michelle Obama and Governors Sebelius (D-KS), Napolitano (D-AZ) and Gregoire (D-WA) at a program in Denver to discuss how to assist “working women and their families.” The whole program consisted of a few “needy,” people who may have been working hard but they argued whatever they could earn and get from government assistance just wasn’t enough to get by. They “needed,” more from government. One of the women participating, who described her struggles to cover her family expenses, was trained as a lawyer but apparently had not been practicing when her relatively young husband died unexpectedly leaving the woman with the burden of raising their five children as a single mom.

Now, let’s think about this: while we would all like to be compassionate, that woman seemed to be a somewhat ”unsympathetic, needy” person. As a professional woman who chose not to work outside the home, and who had five children, one surmises her husband made a fairly good income before he died. Would it be unreasonable to expect that couple to purchase life insurance to provide for the family in the event of the husband’s death, or the wife’s death, for that matter? In the Obama targeted world, many who now buy private insurance would not do so under an Obama administration, because there would always be a government to tax others to care for those families who did not purchase insurance.

The main problem with Obama and his policy proposals is that he and those close to him do not seem to understand the perverse incentives his programs create. Obama, Biden and Michelle, just to name a few, are prone to argue that everyone has a “right,” to excellent education and excellent health care. And, although they don’t discuss it as much, one might think they would argue for a similar right to excellent housing, excellent transportation and excellent life insurance. At some point, we might ask if everyone in society could expect these items as a “right,” would many then choose not to work and, instead, accept the benefits of a welfare state. As a consequence, the tax burden on those providing these benefits becomes onerous, and those who are truly most in need of assistance end up not getting any.

While the above is not an argument for never having a “safety net,” it is an argument for trying to structure governmental assistance programs in a way that preserves a meritocracy and doesn’t give us, ironically, too few Barack Obamas. Put more bluntly, Team Obama, by promising world class education and health care to all, is putting us well on the road to accepting the Marxist view, at least in certain sectors of our economy: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The thing of it is, like pregnancy, it may not be possible to be a little bit Marxist.

McCain, based on what we have heard so far, would take greater care to structure programs to give us a country with more meritocracy and a compassionate, yet smaller, set of safety nets. In short, McCain appears to be a bit more of a capitalist than a Marxist. Perhaps we will get a more definitive answer to that question this coming week, when we travel to the Republican Party convention in St. Paul.
Jeff Berkowitz is host and producer of Public Affairs, a weekly political interview show airing in Chicago on CANTV, in the Chicago metro area and in Aurora on Comcast and also often on the Illinois Channel. You can watch the shows, including archived shows going back to 2005, here. You can read Berkowitz's daily reports from the presidential conventions for and at the Chicago Daily Observer [where you can read these reports first here]. You can contact Berkowitz: *************************************************************
Recently posted shows on the Public Affairs YouTube page will soon include this coming week's Chicago Metro suburban edition of Public Affairs with State Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) and currently include this Monday night's City of Chicago edition of Public Affairs with State Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago), 8th CD Republican Nominee Steve Greenberg, our recent show with Senator Obama (D-IL), Gov. Sebelius (D-KS), DLC Chairman Harold Ford, Cong. Rahm Emanuel (D-Chicago), Attorney General Madigan, WTTW's Carol Marin, Real Clear Politics' Tom Bevan, Sun-Times Abdon Pallasch and much more, recent shows w/ 16th CD Democratic Nominee Robert Abboud, who is taking on 16 year, 16th CD Republican incumbent, Cong. Don Manzullo; Cook County Cmsr. and Republican State's Attorney Nominee Tony Peraica, Real Clear Politics' Tom Bevan , 13th CD Demoratic Nominee Scott Harper,State Rep. Candidate Tim Stratton (R-Glencoe, 58th Dist.), Sen. Kwame Raoul(D-Chicago), Senator John Cullerton (D-Chicago)- ; State Rep. candidate Joan Solms (R-Aurora), Comm. Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) on the Obama Presidential campaign and shows with many other pols.