Obama's Inaugural Address, Individual Rights, and the Royal "We" That Screws Us All


Before we forget about President Barack Obama's second inaugural address yesterday, it's worth pausing for a few minutes on what strikes me as a profound confusion in it.

I was happy to hear Obama say this:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. 

Invoking the gay rights movement (Stonewall) is a good thing and it marks a step forward for presidential discourse. Long an outspoken defender of marriage as something between one man and one woman, Obama last year averred he had grown in office and now embraced gay marriage or, more precisely, civil unions of same-sex adults.

It's not clear if he'll push for, say, federal tax recognition of gay couples that is equal to that of straight ones. But still, his embrace of something like equality under the law for gays and lesbians, along with his ending of Bill Clinton's odious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, is a serious step forward for the government in treating individuals equally under the law.

Indeed, what links Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall is the removal of governmentally sanctioned inequality, not the creation of a new entitlement or protected status. Women, blacks, and gays were/are treated differently by the law, even or especially when private entities with whom they voluntarily contract wanted to treat them the same.

Back in September 1996, when Bill Clinton proudly signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, businesses were already accomodating gay partners in the workplace. In fact, that's one of the reasons why DOMA, which meant that the federal government and states wouldn't have to accept gay marriages legalized by gay-friendly states, was passed. IBM, Apple, Disney, Levi-Strauss, and an increasing number of companies were more than happy to treat their gay employees the same as they treated their straight ones. Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling that created the unbelievably grotesque "separate but equal" doctrine that underpinned Jim Crow, arose when the state refused to let a railroad sell first-class tickets to blacks. There's no question that some private entitites have a long and ugly history of refusing to do business with blacks, women, gays, and other out-groups. But it's always been local, state, and federal governments that caused far more problems by refusing the sorts of mixing and work-arounds that reliably happen when markets operate.

So more power to Obama for embracing individual rights on any level.

Yet as Matt Welch pointed out earlier today, most of Obama's speech was spoken in the royal "we" and involved talking about all the new things that were going to involve us all, whether we want to pitch in or not. In particular, I was struck by this passage about entitlements for the elderly and the poor:

We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

This is a load of high-minded-sounding junk, conflating all sorts of issues and appeals. Seriously, do you know anybody remotely in a position to influence policy who thinks that the government should never help anyone under any circumstances? Medicaid is the country's health-care system for the poor and is, by all accounts, an atrocious program that even sometimes harms the very population at whom it's directed. On a wide variety of outcomes, it is worse than the alternative. And in every state in the union, it is either the single-biggest or second-biggest annual expenditure and a primary cause for state fiscal problems. You can't wrap this rotting fish in soaring rhetoric and get rid of the stink. I happen to believe in a state-assisted safety net—which is precisely why Medicaid is so outrageous. It's a huge waste of money that chronically under-delivers. To pretend otherwise is wilful blindness.

Medicare, the nation's health-payment system for people 65 years and older, and Social Security, the country's income-assistance program for the retired, massively redistribute wealth and resources from the relatively poor and young to the relatively rich and old. It is the exact opposite of the intergenerational pact that has ruled for most of human civilization. You know, the one where older, wealthier, and wiser people give money, resources, and insight to younger ones.

Since 2010, you will get less out of Social Security than you put inThat sort of uni-directional payout doesn't "free us to take the risks that make this country great." It screws over all of us who are footing the bill for retirees whose wealth increased hugely over the past couple of decades.

As for Medicare, that's a program in which payroll taxes, premiums, and copayments cover maybe 50 cents out of each dollar. Which explains both why recipients love it (it's the ultimate inexhaustible Living Social coupon—50 percent off every doctor's visit until you die!) and why it, more than any other government program, will bankrupt the country minus massive change (read: destruction and replacement with a smaller, targeted program that helps the truly poor and disadvantaged, regardless of age). Read more about how old-age entitlements are not about helping the needy but feathering the quite-comfortable nests of politically connected seniors.

When you strip away the high-minded rhetoric of what some are already calling one of "the best" inaugural speeches of the past half-century (a low bar, given that no one can probably name a single competitor), what are you left with? Obama taking credit for advances in individual rights with which he had next to no involvement and his defending programs that fail to achieve anything more than the dispossession of the young and powerless. That's not a progressive message, as many are saying, and it's certainly not a powerful one.