Obama’s Inaugural Address, Individual Rights, and the Royal “We” That Screws Us All

65bbnothing ever gets delisted at Obamas 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
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
Since 2010, you will get less out of Social Security than you put
in. That 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.

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Obama’s Inaugural Address, Individual Rights, and the Royal “We” That Screws Us All

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