I watched the State of the Union address last night. It was typical of such speeches: a hodgepodge of policies that sound more like a pep rally than a policy speech. And given the political realities, how could it be anything else? We don’t have a parliamentary system were the party in control can actually get stuff done. So what we get is a lot of pretending. It may well be why in America we don’t do things so much as we appear to do things.
A big part of this is the political rhetoric we use. Especially on the right, it is perpetually vague. My favorite example of this last night was when the president said, “But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.” I know what he means. When liberals talk about creating jobs, they mean infrastructure spending, job training, tax incentives for businesses to hire. There are all kinds of things, but they mostly cost money. When conservatives talk about creating jobs, they mean cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on business.
Of course, what the conservatives want has nothing to do with creating jobs. Tax cuts for the rich have very little effect on the economy and if they are matched by cuts to other programs, they actually have a negative impact. Cutting regulation in a depressed economy is just a way to make businesses more profitable—it doesn’t do anything to encourage hiring. A depressed economy is the perfect time to force businesses to clean up their factories and plants because it will create jobs. Cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on businesses are things conservatives always want to do because they consider them ends in themselves.
The point is that politicians of any political flavor can go around and talk about creating jobs without any sense of cognitive dissonance. Most ordinary people don’t think of tax cuts for the wealthy as a jobs program, but this is a matter of faith on the right. That’s why I think liberals are ill advised to talk in vague terms. It’s similar to the healthcare debate, where every couple of months some conservative wonk will say, “The Republicans do too have healthcare reform ideas!” And they list them and then it is clear that Republicans have no healthcare reform ideas.
None of this is to say that Obama’s speech was bad. He did mention a number of specific things that I quite liked: research funding, patent reform, the ridiculousness of $4 billion in subsidies to the oil companies each year. And it compared well to Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ speech. She said that of course the Republicans have plans to address income inequality, “Republicans have plans to close the gap—plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.” So they have unstated plans that don’t cost any money and won’t require anything of the private sector. What could this be? Oh, that’s right: cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on business. You know, “Job creation!”