Reporters and politicians have to make a fuss about Obama’s inauguration address, which was a) not all that well delivered–forced energy–and b) not very grand–lots of bills Obama wants to pass, not much to orient Americans about where they fit at this particular moment in humanity’s history–and c) not all that liberal, at least in the conventional big government/small government terms by which it’s being measured. (A Democrat defends Social Security and Medicare? No! It’s Obama unbound, I tell you.) But two lines in the speech struck me as right and noteworthy, because they make points that often get lost on the left as well as on the right:
1. Social equality:
We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. [E.A.]
This is an appeal to the idea of social equality–i.e. how we look at each other no matter how much money we have–not money equality. Since this sentiment is pretty close to the heart of what it means to be an American, it’s surprising how rarely it is invoked in presidential rhetoric. The other notable (eerily similar!) instance was ex-President Reagan’s 1992 convention speech
Whether we come from poverty or wealth …we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough we must be equal in the eyes of each other.
One reason Dems may invoke the idea so rarely is that it contains the seeds of a rebuke to liberal redistributionists–if we can see each other as equals in our eyes despite large disparities of income, then does it really matter so much if those disparities shrink a little or (lately) grow as measured in the Gini coefficient or CBO tables? Once everyone who works has the basic miminum necessary for dignity, how much do the “details of the counting house” matter, compared with the strength of the culture of social equality? I note that Money Liberal Tim Noah quoted the first part of Obama’s sentence but not the last, social egalitarian part. Off message, Tim?
2. A platform for risk-taking:
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.
Again, this pro-risk language sits uneasily with traditional left talk of “unmet needs” and protecting the vulnerable, or protecting the middle for that matter. More generally, it sits uneasily with money-egalitarianism. After all, the economic consequence of risk-taking will by definition be bonanzas for the winners and losses for the losers. Inequality, in other words. When you make risk-taking a positive virtue, as Obama does, you are inviting not just income inequality but continually-renewed income inequality. You’re also talking like a DLC-era neoliberal.
I do wish Obama’s supporters would acknowledge when these two essential sentiments are contradicted by the President’s apparent agenda: Specifically, when it comes to quote #1, that uncontrolled unskilled immigration can prevent Americans who do basic work from earning the minimum necessary for equal dignity. And, with respect to #2, that full Social Security and Medicare benefits for those who are most successful–the top 20-30%, say–are hardly necessary to free them to take risks. All that’s required is to guarantee them a floor should the gamble turn sour and they wind up non-affluent, no? Means-testing, in other words. Is Warren Buffett really going to be galvanized into action by the assurance that he’ll get the $2,500 monthly government check on top of his $60 million income? No. But maybe you do need to reassure would-be entrepreneurs that they’ll still get the full $2,500 pension check if they go broke.