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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since January 2011

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A Deficit of Ideas

January 27, 2011 ·

Today, the White House will announce plans to eliminate the color coding warning system created after 9/11 under the Bush administration. If there is a problem, the Obama administration says, they will tell us. Unlike the doom-and-gloom Republicans, Obama is once again trying to reduce fear and inspire "hope," though he was careful not to use that specific campaign word during his State of the Union address.

But make no mistake about Obama’s speech — at the dawn of what promises to be two years of gridlock, Obama is settling back into where he is most comfortable — the campaign trail. It was no coincidence that the stories he featured throughout his address came from battleground states like Michigan, Colorado, and Oregon or that he visited Wisconsin the next day.

By portraying himself as a sensible centrist above the fray of bipartisan bickering, he futilely attempted to appease one side and then the other, often almost in the same breath. Allow gays in the military (to make Democrats happy) but also allow ROTC on college campuses (to make Republicans happy). Allow people not born in the United States to stay (Democrats) but secure the borders (Republicans).

Obama attempted to appeal to the center by pushing a pro-business agenda and emphasizing American exceptionalism. But pandering to business has a high price. The spending freeze on discretionary domestic programs would have a devastating effect on many American families. Obama emphasized job-creating exports but failed to mention that our trade policies have increased our imports even more. Our trade deals also push a deregulatory agenda that undermines workers and the environment everywhere. Instead of addressing climate change, Obama spoke of “clean energy,” code for the use of oxymoronic "clean coal" and nuclear power.

He missed out on the opportunity to advocate for a progressive vision of the United States and to take on a real leadership role. IPS scholars pointed out that he should have proposed gun control or criminal justice reform. In addressing the deficit, he gave only vague reference to cutting the military budget, a necessary action to take if we are serious about job creation and deficit reduction. Obama failed to propose new ways to generate revenue by clamping down on corporate tax dodgers. Read all of the great suggestions the IPS staff proposed for Obama on the IPS Blog.

Obama is right when he says we are living in a different time. The Republicans have the strength of the conservative movement on the outside pulling them and the nation further and further to the right. We, as progressives, need to apply that same pressure. Hope alone will not sustain us.

SOTU: Smoked Salmon on Wonder Bread

January 26, 2011 ·

The good news for President Barack Obama is that his one joke in an otherwise dead-serious 2011 State of the Union address elicited a chuckle from the assembled lawmakers in the chamber and sent ripples of humorous asides through the blogosphere. In case you missed it, Obama made the case for a historic reorganization of government by highlighting the layers of bureaucracy regulating salmon.

"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he quipped. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

This prompted Michael Moore to make an actually funny joke via Twitter, "Soon a fresh water salmon will sit next to a salt water salmon in the spirit of civility." It provided a welcome break from wondering why Vice President Joe Biden couldn't stop frowning and, as at least one tweeter surmised, whether House Speaker John Boehner’s seat behind the president had a built-in tanning device.

This may end up as Obama's "smoked salmon" speech, just as we remember President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address as his switchgrass moment.

(In case you forgot, that was when he declared, "We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass." Millions of Americans spontaneously shouted "switchgrass!?" at no one in particular, then laughed at Bush.)

To be sure, eloquent moments abounded in Obama's second SOTU address, such as this one:

"We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled."

Bad Policy Menu

But like serving smoked salmon on Wonder Bread, the president's State of the Union address sandwiched inspirational comments with crummy foreign, domestic, and energy policies. Here's a summary of what was on the menu, according to my Institute for Policy Studies colleagues.

Obama's remarks about the nation's entrenched wars were strikingly unrealistic. "This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq," he proclaimed. "America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end."

IPS fellow Phyllis Bennis countered in her real-time analysis for the PBS NewsHour's website that the Iraq War isn't wrapping up, the Afghanistan War is failing, and we can't afford either one. If we are ever going to find 15 million jobs, we need to end the wars and cut military spending.

Then there was the five-year freeze he proposed on the funding of discretionary domestic programs. It would choke off vital assistance to a shrinking middle class and growing numbers of poor and low-income families, IPS fellow Karen Dolan warned.

The sound of the president's silence on climate change and the BP oil disaster was deafening, as IPS fellow and Earthbeat Radio host Daphne Wysham explained. His call for boosting "clean energy" rang hollow because, as Wysham says, he was using the term as "code for 'clean coal' (an oxymoron if there ever was one), nuclear power, and natural gas."

Given the administration's overwhelmingly corporate-friendly tilt, she finds it impossible to get optimistic about Obama actually ending subsidies for oil companies."As long as the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling stands, allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, including large oil companies, it's unlikely that Congress will embrace this proposal," she said.

Catering to Big Business

Obama's pledge to slash the corporate income tax was mistaken, argued Chuck Collins, director of the Institute's Program on Inequality and the Common Good. "It is true that statutorily, the U.S. has a high 35 percent corporate income tax rate. But the effective rate — the percentage of income actually paid in taxes — is considerably lower than in most industrial countries," he said.

Obama also missed an opportunity to get serious about the nation's chronic prison problem (too many Americans are in the slammer) and absurd drug laws. "The budgetary and political stars are finally aligned for serious criminal justice reform," wrote IPS fellow Sanho Tree. "Just yesterday, a group of former world leaders and other dignitaries came out against the drug war. With this much political cover, he would be practically impervious to jabs from the right."

Finally, as linguist George Lakoff predicted, Obama used "business language to indicate that he is pro-business" in this speech, emphasizing "the need for 'competitiveness' as if America were a corporation," and calling for "investments" in education, research, infrastructure, and "clean energy." As he has done for years, Lakoff sounded the alarm about this practice, which undermines even the better aspects of Obama's speeches.

"Economic success lies in human well-being, not in stock prices, or corporate and bank profits," he explains. "These are truths. We need to use language that expresses those truths." Read more about this on Common Dreams in Lakoff's commentary The 'New Centrism' and Its Discontents.

SOTU: Glossing over the Pervasive Suffering Caused by Joblessness

January 26, 2011 ·

President Obama is to be praised for not giving into crisis-hysteria around Social Security and instead calling to protect this vital, popular and stable program.

He also deserves credit for reiterating his call for an end to the Bush tax cuts for those Americans making over $250,000 a year. This is the least of what's necessary for the economy to turn toward a path of recovery.

However, Obama missed the mark in several areas. He seemed to gloss over the pervasive economic suffering in the country as the result of staggering un- and under-employment numbers. And by calling for a five-year freeze on the funding of discretionary domestic programs that offer vital assistance to a shrinking middle class and growing numbers of poor and low-income families, Obama lost a chance to demonstrate true leadership in getting an economy that works for all of us back on track.

Until we get serious about direct public job creation, a positive prescription for reversing the alarming trend of growing poverty and inequality in this nation, and real solutions for soaring health care costs, we won't be able say that President Obama or our federal lawmakers have done their jobs.

SOTU: Parsing Obama's 'Clean Energy' Promises

January 26, 2011 ·

Tellingly, President Barack Obama didn't utter the two words "climate change" once in his State of the Union speech. He did, however, mention "clean energy" several times.

Read these sentences carefully:

"So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

What's happening behind the scenes is that Democrats and Republicans believe that a so-called "clean energy standard" is the way forward on climate change. It takes the word "standard," which environmentalists had successfully paired up with the two words "renewable energy" — as in "renewable energy standard," and perverts its meaning. What once meant a renewable energy target that the nation should shoot for — reliance on wind, solar, and other truly clean, renewable energy — is now becoming conflated with the same old dirty energy of the past: coal, nuclear power, and natural gas.

Code for 'Clean Coal'

But what Obama suggests is that this is a divide to be bridged, that we can move forward with all the old, dirty forms of energy, and maybe add in some wind and solar. The truth is that "clean energy" in this instance is code for "clean coal" (an oxymoron if there ever was one), nuclear power, and natural gas. And "clean coal" and nuclear power are so expensive that they'll starve truly clean energy options in the cradle, and will saddle future generations with debt, radioactive waste, and climate chaos.

The other goal Obama mentioned that has climate implications is high-speed rail. As oil becomes more expensive, this form of transportation will be desperately needed. So hearing this commitment — "within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car" — is welcome news. Will Congress follow through with funding for such a bold initiative? Don't hold your breath.

So, too, his mention of "one million electric cars" coming online is good news, but only if we have a grid that's largely powered by clean and renewable energy. Otherwise, it simply means a greater growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

It's worth noting that Obama made no mention of the state of scientific integrity and openness within his administration, despite making clear in his inaugural address two years ago that science had become politicized to the point of interference with sound scientific policy. Today, scientific openness remains almost as constrained as it was under the previous administration, when climate scientists were muzzled by their media handlers. Obama must take this issue on from his bully pulpit, and not leave it to the Office of Management and Budget to determine what science passes the "cost-benefit" evaluation of economists and what remains off limits for public discussion.

Scrapping Subsidies

Obama did propose ending subsidies for oil companies, adding, "I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own." He also offered a catchy slogan: "Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s."

However, as long as the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling stands, allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, including large oil companies, it's unlikely that Congress will embrace this proposal.

Obama made no mention of the worst oil spill in U.S. history which occurred less than a year ago. It's also worth noting that the recommendations that emerged from the oil spill commission's findings on the BP oil disaster will require a Congress not beholden to the oil industry to act on those recommendations. Without action, a catastrophe like the BP disaster is likely to recur, according to the commission.

Yet by staying silent on this spill, on the commission's findings, as well as on the disastrous public health and environmental fallout that persists today as a result of the EPA's decision to allow dispersants to be used in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama has let down thousands of fisher-folk and others in the region who are paying for this disaster with their livelihoods and their health.

SOTU: Free the People

January 26, 2011 ·

With 2.3 million prisoners in the United States (about one quarter of all the prisoners on the planet), it's a shame President Barack Obama didn't bring up criminal justice reform.

It's one of the few areas in which the U.S. is still No. 1. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, and nearly one quarter of our prisoners are there for nonviolent drug offenses.

Even far right figures like Newt Gingrich have pleaded for prison reform because it's breaking our budgets — especially at the state level. Moreover, Rev. Pat Robertson has called for decriminalizing marijuana because jail is "costing us a fortune and it's ruining young people."

Even though this is a traditional third-rail issue, there's tremendous political cover for Obama to come out for reform. Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all admitted to drug use. Obama himself wrote about his use of marijuana and cocaine.

These facts raise an important question of fairness: Would a good stiff prison sentence have been good for them and their careers? If not, then why is it so good for everyone else (especially poor people and people of color)? What message does that then send to kids? "Don't get caught?"

The budgetary and political stars are finally aligned for serious criminal justice reform. Just yesterday, a group of former world leaders and other dignitaries came out against the drug war. With this much political cover, he would be practically impervious to jabs from the right.

Must we wait for another epoch before they realign to do what is right? Please lead, sir.

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