Set aside childish things?

Little sign of that in current debates

Our nation’s leaders were on their best behavior during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by President Obama: no congressman shouting, “You lie” at the president, no Supreme Court justice mugging for the cameras. It was all very grown up.

But my mind kept drifting back to the president’s inaugural address two years ago, where he declared, “in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” That line has stuck with me, mostly because we’re doing so poorly at heeding its call.

Much of the country is living in a pretend world. House Republicans have passed what they call “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” The reason for the name is that their consultants have instructed them that no matter what they do, it should be described as about jobs. To these folks the country was apparently hunky-dory on January 20, 2009: economy the envy of the world, America respected and admired. Then along came this Obama fellow and everything went to hell.

Winston Churchill advised us to “study history, study history.”  But history is so . . .  yesterday.  In June, former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder marveled in the pages of the Wall Street Journal at a poll showing that 64 percent of Americans believed that the president’s economic policies had failed. Blinder wondered at this because the 64 percent were wrong. The reviled TARP will ultimately cost much less than Americans suppose and “was a necessary evil to save the economy,” he wrote. The Congressional Budget Office credited the stimulus bill with saving or creating two to three million jobs.

Corporate elites and populist patriots demand a radical shrinking of government and argue that TARP and the stimulus have devastated the national bottom line. But as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff show in This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, one characteristic of the aftermath of severe financial crises is an explosion of government debt. The main cause is not bailout costs and shoring up the banking system, but the collapse of revenues due to economic contraction.

It has been argued that November 2010 brought a needed corrective because the administration did not restore all the jobs lost in the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. But Reinhart and Rogoff also show that in post-World War II banking crises across a range of countries, unemployment rises for almost five years with an average increase of about 7 percentage points.

Now this is not to cheer for the current state of affairs, but how can we address national challenges if we remain in a land of pretend?

And we can’t let the president entirely off the hook. He has vowed to work with Republicans in Congress on slashing the national debt. Signing a tax bill in December that will add approximately $900 billion to the debt would seem an odd way to start. But then very few deficit hawks in the Congress voted against the bill, either.        

More childishness? How about our inability to reformulate an energy policy recently described as “stupid” – not by some tree-hugger, but by the CEO of General Electric. Here is an issue critical to our economy, environment, and national security. But House Republicans charged with leadership on energy and the environment either represent fossil fuel industries or come from the crowd that thinks God created the earth about 7,000 years ago. Drill, baby, drill.

There has been some putting aside of childish things. Enough Republican senators defied their leadership to ratify a new START Treaty. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. The first responder health care bill passed (but only after Jon Stewart shamed the Congress into acting).

Then comes Tucson. Or rather the response to Tucson. Efforts to explore the causes of the tragedy have included discussion of serious policy concerns like the ready availability of guns and the adequacy of mental health services. But the aftermath also brought forth more political speculations, such as the role Sarah Palin’s campaign tactics might have played (without any evidence Jared Loughner ever was exposed to, say, Palin’s Facebook page placing the districts of some Democratic representatives, including Gabrielle Giffords, into crosshairs). I’m betting the irresponsible reactions will outlive any realistic attempt to deal with guns or mental health issues. At least two congressmen, a Democrat and a Republican, have announced they will take matters into their own hands and carry firearms to public events. But that is about all we can expect.

Our own Sen. Scott Brown stated that he would not support a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, which from 1994 to 2004 outlawed the manufacture or importation of the extended ammunition clip used by Loughner in the Tucson massacre. Brown said that such regulations “should be left up to the states.” Until he spoke it had not occurred to me that the lesson of Tucson is to maintain our vigilance against encroaching on Arizona’s states right to not regulate weapons. It is a wonderful country, but why we entitle the mentally deranged to buy high powered weapons baffles me.

As to placing the blame on the poisonous nature of our political discourse, President Obama made an eloquent call for us to conduct our political debates fiercely but with civility. We shall see how long that lasts.

Obama has no birth certificate! Obama is driven by “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior!” Obama is a Muslim!

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
Actually, Obama is US born, a Democrat, and a Christian. But he can’t be taking much comfort these days from 1 Corinthians 13:11.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.