State Of The Union: Deteriorating

Tomorrow night, President Bush will tell Americans that the state of our union is strong. He’ll celebrate a growing economy, enjoying rising productivity, rising profits, more jobs and record home ownership. He’ll stand as commander in chief of the most powerful military ever. He’ll lay out areas–energy, immigration, health care–where he envisions progress through bipartisan cooperation.

What he won’t do is level with Americans. In reality, America’s condition is deteriorating rapidly. We’re like a world-class athlete who has let himself go in middle age. Muscle is turning to flab; arteries are clogged, reflexes slowed. The body is not only more vulnerable to garden-variety ailments, it is susceptible to what might be crippling strokes.

An extreme metaphor? Consider the following realities that the president is unlikely to call to the nation’s attention.

Stock prices and productivity are up, CEO salaries are soaring, but workers aren’t sharing in the profits they helped generate. Incomes aren’t keeping up with costs. Since Bush took office six years ago, more Americans live in poverty (now 37 million), families have gone deeper in debt, more go without health insurance (over 45 million), fewer have pensions at work. Americans are working longer and harder than the workers in any other industrial nation, including Japan. But around their kitchen tables at night, they find it harder and harder to figure out how to make ends meet. For most Americans, it’s getting ever harder to provide the basics–stable jobs with family wages, adequate health care, affordable education for their kids, a secure retirement, enough money to keep up with their loans.

Step back and look at the country and our condition appears even more perilous. We face the worst foreign policy debacle in our history in Iraq, the largest trade deficits in the annals of time, the worst inequality since the Gilded Age, record family debt burdens, a health care system that is broken, an education system in dire need of basic investment, an energy policy that undermines our security and fosters catastrophic climate change, 13 million children raised in poverty and the worst budget deficits ever.

We are mortgaging the store–unsustainable trade deficits, record budget deficits and record family indebtedness. The rest of the world–led by central bankers in China and Japan–are financing our profligacy while they capture our manufacturing capacity. We now have a trade deficit with China not only in consumer goods for Wal-Mart, but in high-tech equipment. We are now, for the first time, paying more in interest abroad, $10 billion a year, than our global investments are generating in income. And the president’s trade and tax policies insure that we will keep digging the hole that we’re in.

Worse, we’ve squandered what we’ve borrowed. We should be investing in science and technology, in modern infrastructure, in education and energy independence so that we build a more competitive economy able to grow its way out of a $9 trillion hole. Instead, we’ve ladled the money out to the wealthy in tax breaks and to foreign misadventure in Iraq. Our communications system now lags behind that of Japan and Europe. Our energy dependence bets our economy on the shifting sands of Persian Gulf tribal politics. We aren’t even making the basic investments in education–early childhood health, universal preschool, smaller classes, better teachers and affordable college.

Meanwhile, the captains of our global banks and corporations bail out of America, moving jobs and investments abroad. We’ve witnessed an unprecedented criminal wilding in the corporate suites, as executives cook the books and backdate stock options to plunder their own companies. The federal government has been captured by corporate interests–with oil and gas companies pocketing billions in tax subsidies while wallowing in record profits, and the drug industry enjoying record rates of return while forcing Americans to pay the highest price for medicine in the world.

The U.S. is still prosperous, blessed with creative and hard-working people. Our universities are still the best in the world. A world-class economy–like a world-class athlete–maintains a lot of muscle, even while in decline. But don’t be confused–we’re living off of former glories. When the president says the state of the union is strong, he may be deluding himself, but he’s fooling fewer and fewer people here and abroad.


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