In National Review Online, Ramesh Ponnuru described last night’s State of the Union speech as “… a laundry list of mostly dinky initiatives, and as such a return to Clinton’s style of State of the Union addresses.” I agree with the comparison to Bill Clinton’s appeal to the country’s political center, but Ponnuru’s dismissal of the new initiatives the president mentioned as “dinky” is short-sighted.
In the storm and fury of the political gridiron, the thing to watch is where the line of scrimmage is. And it is precisely initiatives that seem “dinky” because they might have bipartisan support that best show where the political and policy consensus is moving. Here are the hints I gleaned from the text of the State of the Union that policy and politics might be moving in a helpful direction.
- The president invoked Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity as something uncontroversial. But this is actually part of what could be a big shift toward viewing obesity to an important degree as a social problem to be addressed as communities instead of solely as a personal problem.
- The president pushed greater funding for basic research, saying: “Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.” Although neither party has ever been against support for basic research, budget pressures often get in the way. And limits on the length of State of the Union addresses very often mean that science only gets mentioned when it touches on political bones of contention such as stem-cell research or global warming. So it matters that support for basic research got this level of prominence in the State of the Union address. In the long run, more funding for the basic research could have a much greater effect on economic growth than most of the other economic policies debated in Congress.
- The president had kind words for natural gas and among “renewables” only mentions solar energy. This marks a shift toward a vision of coping with global warming that can actually work: Noah Smith’s vision of using natural gas while we phase out coal and improving solar power until solar power finally replaces most natural gas use as well. It is wishful thinking to think that other forms of renewable energy such as wind power will ever take care of a much bigger share of our energy needs than they do now, but solar power is a different matter entirely. Ramez Naam’s Scientific American blog post “Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore’s law apply to solar cells“ says it all. (Don’t miss his most striking graph, the sixth one in the post.)
- The president emphasized the economic benefits of immigration. I wish he would go even further, as I urged immediately after his reelection in my column, “Obama could really help the US economy by pushing for more legal immigration.” The key thing is to emphasize increasing legal immigration, in a way designed to maximally help our economy. If the rate of legal immigration is raised enough, then the issue of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants doesn’t have to be raised: if the line is moving fast enough, it is more reasonable to ask those here against our laws to go to the back of the line. The other way to help politically detoxify many immigration issues is to reduce the short-run partisan impact of more legal immigration by agreeing that while it will be much easier to become a permanent legal resident, citizenship with its attendant voting rights and consequent responsibility to help steer our nation in the right direction is something that comes after many years of living in America and absorbing American values. Indeed, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to stipulate that it should take 18 years after getting a green card before becoming a citizen and getting the right to vote—just as it takes 18 years after being born in America to have the right to vote.
- With his push for pre-kindergarten education at one end and expanded access to community colleges at the other end, Obama has recognized that we need to increase the quantity as well as the quality of education in America. This is all well and good, but these initiatives are focusing on the most costly ways of increasing the quantity of education. The truly cost-effective way of delivering more education is to expand the school day and school year. (I lay out how to do this within existing school budgets in “Magic Ingredient 1: More K-12 School.”)
- Finally, the president promises to create new forms of retirement savings accounts (the one idea that Ramesh Ponnuru thought was promising in the State of the Union speech). Though this specific initiative is only a baby step, the idea that we should work toward making it easier from a paperwork point of view for people to start saving for retirement than to not start saving for retirement is an idea whose time has come. And it is much more important than people realize. In a way that takes some serious economic theory to explain, increasing the saving rate by making it administratively easier to start saving effects not only people’s financial security during retirement, but also aids American competitiveness internationally, by making it possible to invest out of American saving instead of having to invest out of China’s saving.
Put together, the things that Barack Obama thought were relatively uncontroversial to propose in his State of the Union speech give me hope that key aspects of US economic policy might be moving in a positive direction, even while other aspects of economic policy stay sadly mired in partisan brawls. I am an optimist about our nation’s future because I believe that, in fits and starts, good ideas that are not too strongly identified with one party or the other tend to make their way into policy eventually. Political combat is noisy, while political cooperation is quiet. But quiet progress counts for a lot. And glimmers of hope are better than having no hope at all.