SOTU Preview: My Government Keeps Talking About "Competitiveness" And All I Got Was Debt Up the Ying-Yang


Stock up on those 5 Hour Energy drinks for tonight's State of the Union Address by President Barack Obama. By all early accounts, this speech will be a strong dose of been there, done that redux.

The Washington Post says Obama "will call for a broad 'competitiveness' initiative in Tuesday night's State of the Union address, proposing a series of steps the United States should take to retain its standing as the world's largest and most influential economy." Wait, there's more:

In a speech Friday at General Electric plant in Upstate New York, Obama said that the "new mission" of his administration's policies would be to "do everything we can to ensure that businesses can take root and folks can find good jobs and America is leading the global competition that will determine our success in the 21st century."

What form will that competitiveness mission take? Increased spending, of course, especially when it comes to education and infrastructure. As The New York Times puts it, here's the crux of it all: 

When President Obama uses his State of the Union address on Tuesday to rally America to "outbuild" other nations, he will face an unusual challenge: getting Republicans to embrace public works projects again as the kind of worthy bacon they have traditionally fought to bring home, and not as wasteful pork that should be spurned.

Here's a note to Obama's tacticians: If you want the GOP to curl up around your feet, just tell 'em you're investing in defense spending and homeland security. All indications so far are that, with a few exceptions (cough, cough, Ron and Rand Paul, cough, cough), virtually all Republicans are still in thrall to the idea that the government can't deliver the mail worth a damn but can somehow efficiently prosecute region-building exercises everywhere west of California and east of Rhode Island.

More to the point: We have seen the "competitiveness" agenda and, like the future in the Soviet Union, it doesn't work.

So some words of advice to the president:

We have already "invested" tons of loot into K-12 education. The facts are clear on this: Since 1970, per pupil expenditures on K-12 education have more than doubled, and class sizes has shrunk. Yet, graduating high school seniors are performing at precisely the same levels as they were 40 years ago. The system doesn't work as is, and all the extra dough in the world ain't gonna change that.

It's ironic that you will be talking about the need for increased competitiveness and schooling during National School Choice Week, a non-partisan initiative to drum up interest in expanding educational options for kids. You want competitiveness in K-12 education, the sort of intervention that would individualize learning, alter power-dynamic, increase student and parental satisaction rates, and save money? Abolish the federal Department of Education, established not too long ago (1980), and spend its billions and billions of dollars on Rosetta Stone programs for grammar school kids.

Somewhat more seriously, Mr. President: Just say that the federal government will no longer give federal dollars to schools that are not schools of choice. You've never sent your kids to a school that gets students and tax dollars just because people are forced to send their kids there. Extend that choice to all parents and instead of joking around with B.S. programs like "The Race to the Top," which spent less ($4 billion) on generating innovation and reform than you immediately gave to educrats right after the winners of that contest were announced ($10 billion in pure pork just before the 2010-2011 school year started).

When it comes to higher education, you're getting props from all manner of rich broadcasters who love Pell Grants and low, low loans to college students (unless, of course, they go to for-profit, trade schools, which everyone with a B.A. from a four-year college knows, are pure evil). But the fact is, all that government money and subsidization for education creates a bubble just like it does in the housing market. In fact, the higher-ed bubble just keeps a-blowing. Those of us who spent 20 years or so getting degrees love us schooling but there comes a certain point, like turning Pell Grants into entitlements, where you just gotta say WTF and let markets price what college should cost.

Then there's that other black hole known as "infrastructure improvement." You know, Americans may pride themselves on being free from the shackles of history, but even the most ignorant among us remembers the Golden Age of Shovel-Ready Projects. We have yet to forget the triumph and drama of such urgently needed local improvements as the police facility solar panels of Lake Havasu, Arizona that would, the nation's buck-hungry mayors told us, would cost just $400,000 and generate 75 jobs; or the O'Malley Road Reconstruction in Anchorage, Alaska that we were told would create a whopping 300 jobs for just $30 milion in stimulus funds. And let's not forget the $71,000 that Manhattan, Kansas wanted to spend on a traffic light coordinator. According to your admin's own predictions regarding the unemployment rate and jobs created (later reduced to "saved," for at least as long stimulus dollars flowed) the stimulus didn't work. Don't double down on failure. You're already doing that in Afghanistan and there's no need to bring that war home.

There's at least two things to keep in mind about pouring more money—sorry, investment—down the rat hole of building bridges and super-trains that can go almost as fast as cars while costing 10 times as much. First, we're broke, at the state level, the local level, and the federal level. Check it out, why dontcha? Federal outlays in real terms are up 60 percent since Bill Clinton hit the bricks. If George W. Bush was the fuse, you, sir, are the explosion. In 2007, the fed's debt-to-GDP ratio was 37 percent. Now it's 63 percent and climbing faster than a dog-chased postman up a tree. You can't even pass a goddamned budget for this fiscal year and you're going to tell us we need to shell out more dough than ever?

Here's the kicker: To the extent that we need to maintain and increase infrastructure in the country, there's no need to spend public dollars. Take a page from the super-successful long-term lease of the Indiana Toll Road, where the Hoosier State dumped an epic money-losing white elephant on a private firm that a) paid almost $4 billion up front for a 75-year lease; b) pledged to do precisely the sort of improvements that the state couldn't afford, and c) will follow state guidelines or see its lease revoked. Spending on roads and the like (including absolutely useless money pits like high-speed rail) won't stimulate the economy or get people from point A to point B. They will saddle us with even more debt, which will either burden us with higher taxes or squeeze credit markets for the private sector. There's a ton of firms who are ready and willing to expand road capacity using their own money in exchange for the ability to make dollars off that increased capacity. You're sweating over China. Well, China is building most of its infrastructure with private funds. This may be one of the cases where it's worth following their lead.

The GOP got elected to a majority in the House of Representatives because your first two years have been a disaster for most of us. And note that the disaster isn't because you were stymied in your ambitions. It was because you got exactly what you asked for: Unpopular bailouts to banktards and car companies and deadbeat mortage holders, stimulus spending up the wazoo, vague yet "transformative" health care reforms, financial regulation overhaul that will only make it more difficult for low-income folks to get credit cards, you name it.

Now that they are in power, of course, Republicans are sputtering like a Chevy Monza when it comes to naming something/anything they'll cut other than maybe kinda sorta NPR funding. Be brave and tell them and America that you're ready to take on the entitlement spending that is outta control and is a bad deal especially for poorer and darker Americans who get stiffed on Social Security and Medicare. And tell us you're ready to free up all the dead capital and dead bodies and forsaken futures that are trapped in military budget that is more than six times what China shells out in absolute dollars and more than twice as much in terms of percentages of GDP. You want the U.S. to be "competitive," then maybe just maybe it's time to give more power to the people who pay the bills for the sorry situation we're in right now.

Sometimes freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. And as residents of a variety of countries (including Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Lithuania) could tell you, sometimes austerity is just another word for economic expansion.


NEXT: The Audacity of Cynicism

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  1. All your fucking libertarian heroes have clay feet, don’t they? First the Graet White Hope Ron Paul turnsout to be a shit-faced racist pig, and now it emerges that that ugly dickhead Bob Barr represents the nurderous Haitian dictator Baby Doc. What the fuck?

    1. Was it nurder or merely nanslaughter?

      1. I think he meant nerderous.

        1. Man I miss Nomicide: Life on the Streets. Just a great show.

      2. I think he meant nerderous.

    2. Jesus, Edward, you’re days old. If you were going to jizz over the Bob Barr thing, couldn’t you at least do it in a timely fashion?

    3. Boring troll is boring.

    4. Max clearly has a problem with black presidents.

    5. If you really want to go down this road we could compare them to your great statist heroes: the ones who’ve murdered, maimed, and impoverished millions. Let’s see how they stack up.

      1. FDR would never do such a thing!

    6. Bad boy, bad! Somebody get me a rolled-up newspaper! Max did his banalities on the carpet, again! There will be plenty of snout a’rubbin!

      Bad boy! Bad Max!

    7. Is this kid retarded or just plain willfully stupid?

  2. Gotta love Maobama’s Five Pillars that this one is based on. Sounds like a rerun from 2009.

  3. Obama need only utter one word to get me on board. The word is

    1. Is? That’s it?

      1. That whole link thingee too complicated for you? 😉

    2. “And that word is ‘poontang.'”

  4. The idea that this blathering imbecile, who has never had a real job in his life, is claiming to be able to create jobs and double exports (by force of will, apparently) and not get laughed right off the stage is extremely depressing.

    1. At least with the new seating arrangements, he won’t know where the laughter is coming from.

      1. I keep waiting for someone to have the balls to pass out a bunch of laser pointers.

        1. You mean the kind that actually can ignite inflammable substances, like, say silk ties, with prolonged contact?

    1. Hey! I was young and sane then!

  5. Ha, banktards, I am totally using that one.

  6. “My fellow Americans, members of Congress, honored guests, and even you jokers from the Supreme Court. The time is not ripe for the dictatorship of the proletariat; therefore, my administration intends to gut the federal government and push for free markets. Oh, and no income taxes for one year until we can institute a flat tax. Thank you very much.”

  7. The Washington Post says Obama “will call for a broad ‘competitiveness’ initiative in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, proposing a series of steps the United States should take to retain its standing as the world’s largest and most influential economy.”

    Hold on to your wallets, gang! It’s gonna be a doozy!

    1. And remember to replace the word “invest” every time with “spend more of your money”

  8. The actual STATE of the Union is that we’ve got a boatload of bankrupt states and municipalities. We won’t actually get any report on the STATE of the UNION, instead we’ll merely get some nonsense about the STATE of the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ONLY and more likely not even that – we’ll merely get the STATE of the PRESIDENT (as usual).

  9. Ideas for this year’s Hit and Run SOTU drinking game rules?

    A whole beer for each Justice with the balls to skip it after last year’s insult.

    1. I think tat if R’s and D’s can sit together for this the judges can sit with the criminals. Judge Roberts, Michelle Obama. Judge Kennedy, Joe Biden.

  10. It’s a sign of how ludicrous Big Government is that a simple task like the President issuing an annual report to the Congress has been turned into a religious ritual, and not even a dignified ritual but a cheesy gaudy exercise in ass-kissing.

    1. I agree completely. It’s a friggin’ speech. That’s it. It has no legal bearing, nor do presidents necessarily do anything they say they’re going to do.

      Total nonsense, and the media should be ashamed from inflating it into something significant. Really, a great “fourth branch” would routinely mock the pretensions of our government and its officials. In fact, they’d probably not even bother to cover this nonsense live. Unfortunately, we don’t even have a moderately competent media. Present company excepted, of course.

      1. The Constitution doesn’t even require that it be a speech. I don’t think it was delivered as a speech until sometime in the 20th Century. The requirement could be met by simply typing up the report, sticking it in a brown envelope, and sending it to Congress.

        Sure, they won’t read it. Shit, they don’t read the laws they pass, why read this? But as you say it has no legal or practical effect anyway so who’d miss it?

        1. If I were president, aside from maybe one dramatic SoU (opened with AC/DC playing “For Those About to Rock” live), I’d eschew the whole business.

          1. “My fellow Americans, the state of our Union is Fucked. For details, please read the full paper submitted to Congress as required. I intend to veto the shit out of everything, abolish regulations in executive agencies with abandon, and fire every third federal employee. May FSM reach down his noodly appendage and bless America.”

  11. the judges can sit with the criminals. Judge Roberts, Michelle Obama. Judge Kennedy, Joe Biden.

    You forgot Timmay!

  12. Lithuanian austerity? Really?

    You realize their GDP is down 19.5% from 2008-2010…whereas ours only fell…oh wait, it has actually grown .5% by the end of FY2010 vs peak year before recession…

    Here’s the numbers:
    Lithuania GDP constant dollars (billions)
    2008: 81.020
    2010: 67.764

    USA GDP constant dollars (billions)
    2008: 13,312.175
    2010: 13,390.074

    So…again…austerity what? Thanks for proving our point that the stimulus worked…

    And if you want to talk about unemployment…or those other countries…let’s do it…here’s where i get my data from:


    1. Hello – I don’t believe we’ve met before.

    2. You realize that without government deficit funding the 2010 number is more like $12,000 bn. We borrowed and spent an extra $1.5T in 2010. That “counts” towards GDP but that’s such a doctored statistic as to be useless.

      1. So, what you’re saying is, that with austerity we’d be doing as poorly as lithuania? That is kinda the point.

        By every objective measure, it worked. By irrational “hatred” of deficits, it didn’t work. I get it. I’m more worried about reality and results than ideology…

        1. No, I’m saying that they cheated the number they talk up. It doesn’t indicate anything about the relative strength of an economy when a government can borrow and spend >10% to keep the number artificially inflated. Thanks for the snark kid.

          1. So you’re saying the people that created the goods didn’t really get their paychecks? The construction workers and all that? They didn’t actually do the work, the roads aren’t actually there?

            I think you’re confusing a lack of demand with a lack of potential…so we borrowed some money to get demand back up to par…and you think this is just evil on principle…i get it…

            ….but everyone was better off…sorry to say…we’d all be doing worse off if it wasn’t for the stimulus spending – including infrastructure, transfers to states for police and teachers so taxes didn’t go up or crime or kids getting cheated out of an education, and all the tax cuts that put money in your pocket.

            You have a funny view of the economy which is not consistent with reality.

            1. You have an odd formulation of logic, which is not consistent with reality. Let’s follow it through to the end:

              Let’s just have the feds borrow enough cash to pay off the debt of everyone in the country! Think of all the unleashed discretionary income that could be used to boost demand!

              Or better yet — since tax cuts put money in our pockets, let’s just set the tax rates to negative their current values! People in the 25% bracket, for example, would instead be at -25%. It would be like having an instant 25% raise (which, with the tax cut, would yield a 50% increase in net income!). Of course, the deficit will explode, but so what! They’re doing that now and it has resulted in nothing but great things!

              “Everyone [is] better off” only in the same sense that an addicted gambler is “better off” once he runs yet another cash advance on his credit card in order to offset his losses. Yes, he can still pay his mortgage, feed himself, etc… but it can’t go on forever… in order to avoid becoming homeless he has to stop gambling. The fed has taken a cash advance, but it has not stopped gambling.

        2. It worked 100% if we don’t have to pay the money back. Yes. But I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, we’re going to stick it to the children. Why do you hate the children?

          1. Actually, Brett, you undersell your case. You forgot the magical multiplier – put $1 billion in the economy and get back something greater than $1 billion.

          2. If we pay 100k for a child to go to college and add it to the national debt…

            …or he gets 100k in loans to go to college…

            …and he has to pay back this debt anyways…

            …and the fact that others in society that might not have gone because they couldn’t afford 100k in loans, with the opportunity cost of the benefits this child would have provided to society in higher efficiency, higher tax payments, less prison and police cost…

            …wait, which of us hates children?

            When you look at all the variables…the countries that educate their children with “deficit spending” have it right…

            …and if you want to talk about healthcare, pensions, etc…we can look at all the variables there too…

            …now, if you are pointing out that most of our deficit is war spending, then yes, we’re in a agreement…those people hate children.

            1. ….and the same applies to the benefits for people who lost their jobs, etc…if you people want to look at the total picture, anytime you’re ready…you can stop the demagoguery…”you hate children” and all that…

              …because i’m pretty sure the libertarian idea of letting them suffer if thats how the chips fall (tough love as your republican friends call it) is a lot closer to “hating the children” then providing them with an education and a functioning economy instead of a depression…

              1. His was rhetorical — yours was not. Again… your tone exposes your own lack of confidence in your position.

                You call libertarians children haters not because they are, but because you don’t understand. Keep trying.

  13. The drinking game word of tonight’s SOTU address will be “Investment”.

    Which is just another way to describe more government spending.

  14. In a change of heart, Obama proposes to pour tons of money into Education (teachers unions) and Federally Funded Construction projects (public sector unions), totally different from his previous ‘stimulus’ package, which poured money into State Budget and pension shortfalls (*teachers unions, public sector unions).

    But this time it will be rationalized as *making us competitive*. Because everyone knows, public school teachers are like pitbulls in their struggle to eliminate each other in the open market for talent and achieve pre-eminance… and nobody puts more value into an hour of work than public sector infrastructure workers…


    Seriously, if he just got up and said the country was broke and that he has no idea what to do about it,the Dems would still get up and applaud, and the GOP would sit stoically. The program has already been scripted.

  15. “Stock up on those 5 Hour Energy drinks…”

    I can’t stand to listen to that guy for five minutes.

  16. Here’s what I said on the NYT about Obama’s forthcoming SOTU deceit tonight — which is as predictable as the sun setting tonight:

    “What to Watch For in Obama’s State of the Union”?

    Well, the Times reports that the details of the speech are being held close to the vest — and that this may auger for some surprises.

    The Times also hints that Obama’s liberal supporters are looking for some “red meat” substance — and this is precisely where that biggest surprise will come.

    So, look for this:

    Folks, Obama for the first time will really level with the American people and he will proceed to first expose, then excoriate, and finally commit to excise what he will announce as “a disguised ruling-elite corporate/financial/militarist Empire, which has almost fully ‘captured’ our country, and is the proximate cause of all foreign and domestic problems, including; deadly imperialist oil wars ‘abroad’, state terrorism by the MIC, torture, and human rights abuses throughout the world, along with domestic spying, this grinding economic oppression of all average Americans, massive levels of corporate fraud, environmental destruction, and a terrible increase in police-state tyranny ‘at home'”.

    “As Hannah Arendt warned of the Nazi Empire which took over the German Republic before WWII, ‘Empire abroad, entails tyranny at home’, and I pledge that I will lead our country against such Empire take-over of our own country today — and need you to stand with me on this most crucial confrontation between democracy and Empire.”

    Just kidding.

    You can certainly watch for this in Obama’s State of the Union, and mightily ‘hope’ for him to say he will fight to protect our Union being destroyed by this sneak attack of Empire against democracy, but you will be sorely disappointed to find him instead saying this about Empire —- nothing, not a whisper, zilch, zero, O.

    Yes the O-man will say O about the quiet death of our democracy.

    Alan MacDonald
    Sanford, Maine
    “Democracy over Empire” party headquarters

    PS. My post on the NYT Caucus blog “What to Watch For in Obama’s State of the Union” is #24, and I would appreciate any principled progressives who are “Against Empire” (Parenti), and who are in agreement with my position regarding democracy vs. Empire to hold your nose, visit NYT, and recommend/support “Democracy over Empire”.

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