Po­lit­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion­ism of the State of the Union

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON — As undig­ni­fied as it is uned­i­fy­ing and un­nec­es­sary, the vul­gar State of the Union cir­cus is again at our throats. The doc­u­ment that the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion sent forth from Philadel­phia for rat­i­fi­ca­tion in 1787 was just 4,543 words long, but this was 17 too many. Amer­ica would be a sweeter place if the Framers had not in­cluded this la­conic pro­vi­sion per­tain­ing to the pres­i­dent: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress in­for­ma­tion of the state of the union.”

“In­for­ma­tion”? ex­actly.

The Con­sti­tu­tion’s mild re­quire­ment has be­come a tire­some ex­er­cise in po­lit­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion­ism, the most ex­e­crable cer­e­mony in the na­tion’s civic liturgy, re­gard­less of which party’s pres­i­dent is abus­ing it. You wor­ship bi­par­ti­san­ship? There is not a dime’s worth of dif­fer­ence be­tween the ways the par­ties try to milk par­ti­san ad­van­tage from this made-for-tele­vi­sion po­lit­i­cal pep rally.

Tues­day evening, Barack Obama prob­a­bly will con­cen­trate on in­equal­ity as a way of chang­ing the sub­ject from his in­con­ve­nient tri­umph, the Af­ford­able Care Act. So he prob­a­bly will again pro­pose par­tial pub­lic fi­nanc­ing of Demo­cratic can­di­dates’ cam­paigns, by again call­ing for “high-qual­ity” uni­ver­sal pre-school. This ad­jec­ti­val phrase is code for: Now we will do bet­ter be­cause we will em­ploy more cer­ti­fied — and union­ized — teach­ers.

Stud­ies of it strongly in­di­cate that the cog­ni­tive and other ef­fects of early preschool are slight and evanes­cent — gone by the third grade. The few stud­ies of other state pro­grams that in­di­cate bet­ter re­sults have pos­si­ble method­olog­i­cal prob­lems ex­plained by Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity so­cial sci­en­tists David J. Ar­mor and So­nia Sousa in “The Du­bi­ous Prom­ise of Uni­ver­sal Preschool” in Na­tional Af­fairs quar­terly.

Even “high-qual­ity” uni­ver­sal preschool would not mea­sur­ably re­duce in­equal­ity. It would, how­ever, ef­fi­ciently con­vey funds from the fed­eral trea­sury to a new co­hort of union­ized teach­ers, then through union dues to Demo­cratic can­di­dates.

The pres­i­dent will prob­a­bly again pro­pose com­bat­ing in­equal­ity with a 23rd in­crease (since 1938) of the min­i­mum wage. This would have no mea­sur­able ef­fect on in­equal­ity be­cause few heads of house­hold earn the min­i­mum wage and most such earn­ers are part­time work­ers from house­holds with an av­er­age an­nual in­come of $53,000. Twenty per­cent are from $75,000-plus house­holds.

Obama prob­a­bly also will urge mea­sures to in­crease col­lege en­roll­ments. For sev­eral decades, both par­ties sim­ply knew that not enough peo­ple owned homes. So, fed­eral pol­icy — mort­gage sub­si­dies, lower lend­ing stan­dards — en­cour­aged more home­own­er­ship than mar­ket ra­tio­nal­ity would have pro­duced. One ex­cit­ing re­sult was the Great Re­ces­sion. Now the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which sim­ply knows that not enough peo­ple are get­ting col­lege de­grees, has fu­eled a bub­ble in higher ed­u­ca­tion by fun­nel­ing bil­lions in sub­si­dies for stu­dent tu­ition aid. To the sur­prise of no one, ex­cept the gov­ern­ment, schools have re­sponded by rais­ing their prices — they are up 23 per­cent since Obama’s first elec­tion — to cap­ture the sub­si­dies.

The Center for Col­lege Af­ford­abil­ity and Pro­duc­tiv­ity (“Why Are Re­cent Col­lege Grad­u­ates Un­der­em­ployed? Univer­sity En­roll­ments and La­bor-Mar­ket Re­al­i­ties”) re­ports that about 48 per­cent of those col­lege grad­u­ates who are em­ployed are oc­cu­py­ing jobs that the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics sug­gests re­quire less than a four-year col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Thirty-seven per­cent are in jobs that re­quire no more than a high-school diploma, and about 5 mil­lion are in jobs that re­quire less than a high-school ed­u­ca­tion. About 14 per­cent of wait­ers and wait­resses, 16.5 per­cent of bar­tenders, 18 per­cent of tele­mar­keters and 24.6 per­cent of re­tail sales­peo­ple— not in­clud­ing the 14.5 per­cent of counter and sales clerks — have col­lege de­grees.

Th­ese de­tails prob­a­bly will not be in­for­ma­tion that Obama gives to Congress Tues­day evening when leg­is­la­tors from the pres­i­dent’s party will bray ap­proval of his bro­mides and still­born panaceas, leg­is­la­tors from the other party will be histri­on­i­cally tor­pid or sullen, and some moral ex­em­plars in the House gallery will be ap­plauded.

In 2010, Chief Jus­tice John Roberts said: “The im­age of hav­ing the mem­bers of one branch of gov­ern­ment stand­ing up, lit­er­ally sur­round­ing the Supreme Court, cheer­ing and hol­ler­ing while the court — ac­cord­ing to the re­quire­ments of pro­to­col — has to sit there ex­pres­sion­less, I think is very trou­bling.”

Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia no longer at­tends what he calls “cheer­lead­ing ses­sions.” Jus­tice Clarence Thomas, who says “there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV — the cat­calls, the whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing and un­der-the-breath com­ments,” will not be there Tues­day night. Will Roberts at­tend? No jus­tices or se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers should stoop to be­ing props at th­ese puerile spec­ta­cles.



Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is georgewil­l­wash­post.com.


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