Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: State of the Union chock full of wistful visions

January 28, 2012

The constitutional obligation of the U.S. president to report “from time to time” to Congress on the state of the union is a rightly awesome event. Assembled in the halls of Congress, the elected bodies of the world’s oldest democracy are joined by the president, his cabinet, joint chiefs of staff, members of the Supreme Court and many others. As the congressional sergeant at arms, dressed not in a king’s livery but a sober gray suit, introduces the president, you’d have to be unaware of the sweep of history to not feel pride in our republic.

Of course, the State of the Union is also a political event, and more so in an election year like this one. The economics of this State of the Union address loom large. How did it measure up?

The short answer is, not well. The bacchanalia of the stimulus has limited spending choices far into the future. So, most of the policies outlined by President Obama are wistful visions of a future that cannot be. This stark reality plays poorly against the direction of his policy recommendations.

As if to reinforce the malignancy of the fiscal problem, the president started his speech by touting the history of his job-creation plan (bailing out General Motors), which cost taxpayers a trifling $175,000 per job (perhaps the most efficient of the stimulus programs, according to White House figures). At that rate, we can eliminate unemployment for a mere $2.8 trillion a year, or an extra annual tax of $21,000 on each household. No doubt, these promises will collect some votes from gullible folks in swing states.

We don’t all vote on economic issues (though this might soon change). In this, Obama enjoys a wisdom his opposition needs take measure of. Each year, we spend good money giving the bum’s rush to young men and women who are eager and ready to work in America; their only weakness is they aren’t citizens. If we cannot fix this, we must abandon our national design on continued greatness.

Obama explained well the need for thoughtful education reform, though he needs some Hoosier courage on that front as well. He also highlighted the recent military successes in Iraq and Afghanistan. These occurred on his watch, at his order, and he deserves credit and blame in equal measure depending on how they turn out. Right now, they look promising.

Afterward, the GOP response delivered by our own Gov. Mitch Daniels offered a striking contrast to Obama. This was refreshing, not least because he offered two sweeping but tractable public policies that are needed to fix our fiscal disarray: tax reform and entitlement reform. But Daniels’ real draw was that he has been successful in controlling spending in a way his national party brethren have not.

Two other aspects of Tuesday evening struck me: First, both messages about the future came from men who have chosen the Midwest as home. Second, all the hot air and speechifying blew the clouds away from Muncie to reveal a memorable array of the northern lights.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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