30 January 2012

Obama's Look Inward to a Zero-Sum World

R.A. analyzes President Obama's State of the Union speech in the Economist. This section is worth pointing out:
Americans are motivated by competition and patriotism, and if that's the only way to rally the country behind fundamentally sound policies like subsidies for basic research, then that's the card you play. And, in practice, Mr Obama's reforms will probably not do much more than offset the crummy, mercantilist choices made by other governments elsewhere. No one is talking about going back to the early 19th century, or to the days of communist containment.

I don't see that that's an acceptable excuse. People who live outside of America are people just like Americans, and we should all rejoice in their rising prosperity, the more so when it occurs through additions to the stock of human knowledge that will benefit people everywhere. If an American president can't communicate that simple idea to his citizenry, out of fear that he'll be drummed out of office on a wave of nationalistic outrage, then he doesn't deserve to be president and his country doesn't deserve to win a damned thing, least of all the right to call itself "exceptional", a beacon of hope and freedom. A zero-sum world is a world without hope, and if Mr Obama is convinced that's what we're in then I don't see much need for him to stick around.
It is no mistake that the SOTU neglected to address foreign aid in any meaningful way. Being that it is only 1% of the budget makes it a marginal issue from a financial perspective. However, given the tone of the address, it is not a part of US economic interests. This contradicts when Obama told the UN General Assembly in September, "we will work with emerging economies that have rebounded strongly, so that rising standards of living create new markets that promote global growth. That is what our commitment to prosperity demands."

If asked explicitly, there is no doubt that Obama would say the same thing again, but when facing the national spotlight in a broadcast speech to Americans he focused on domestic needs first. My concern is less the words of the President as much as it is the audience. Speaking to the American people, Obama believed that they want to hear about new jobs programs that will restore the manufacturing sector and compete with countries like China.

In essence, Obama is calling for the space race 2.0. The US is less attractive to manufacturers because the field is not level, he argued. In arguing that point, Obama plays into the fallacy that hard work alone will make the difference between success and failure. If the US and China were to be on equal footing it wouldn't even be a match in his eyes.

Somehow the argument ignores the ways that the US has stacked the deck in its own favor. One example is farm subsidies that maintain the present level of US agriculture. There is little movement to remove the subsidies so farmers in Mexico and Kenya can stand on even ground with US farming giants.

By looking further inward, the United States continues to ignore the impact its actions have on the other 6.7 billion people who share this planet. Taking such a stance throws support to a pervasive world view among Americans that we live in a zero-sum world.  In doing so, an opportunity to look at ways to raise the level of living for people, no matter their nationality, is lost.