Obama: Shared Social Commitments Make Us Great
|Posted by on Feb 11 2013
By: Bob Lucore
In his inaugural address, President Obama encouraged liberals by presenting many progressive themes. After a campaign season in which global warming seemed to be a forbidden topic, his address called for action. His advocacy of equality for lesbians and gays was a first. He spoke confidently of the need to reform the immigration system, and explained that with changing times, we need a bold and activist government that can address the issues of the future and bind us together as Americans.
One of the most welcome parts of the address was this:
“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. “
The last sentence of that paragraph encapsulates the difference between conservatives and
liberals on the role of government in providing a social safety net and social insurance.
Conservatives deride programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as “entitlements,”
and nothing more. Disaster assistance, nutrition programs, income supports, and health care are giveaways. This is the view that was captured so well in Mitt Romney’s famous 47% video, and in this infuriating video from the American Enterprise Institute. These programs are making us a risk-averse, morally weak nation of takers and moochers, claim many conservatives. They hope we won’t notice the contradiction when they claim that the corporate-rich won’t have an incentive to create jobs unless we reduce their taxes and increase their subsidies.
The president was right to point out that our mutual social commitments do not sap us of
initiative, make us risk averse or weaken our spirit of entrepreneurship. Liberals recognize that people will be more accepting of change, more able to take risks and more free to be creative if they know that they have a strong social safety net to fall back on should misfortune strike. A system that provides no insurance or support for those who fall on hard times, or need a helping hand to gain a chance for success, is a system in which no one wants to risk being innovative orcreative, because no one can afford to fail. It is a system motived by fear of loss, not incentives for success.
The idea that mutual social commitments can lead to economic success and a spirit of innovation is not merely abstract. In the decades that followed World War II, America expanded its welfare systems, educated an unprecedented number of baby-boom children in the public schools, created a national health insurance system (called Medicare) for the elderly, and opened up opportunities through affirmative government efforts that enabled previously excluded groups to contribute to our nation’s success. Higher rates of unionization, fairer taxes and policies that drove down unemployment assured that prosperity was shared more broadly. At the same time, ours was an economy that led the world in innovation and creativity.
Looking abroad today, the Scandinavian countries teach similar lessons. Finland is known as a
world leader in education and hi-tech creativity. Stockholm is known as a clean, green city of
that is a hub of technological innovation. H -tech trains move passengers between Scandinavian cities at a pace unknown in the United States. As Uwe Becker’s review of the Scandinavian Model shows, a high level of government involvement in the economy, a generous welfare state, high rates of unionization and a wage system that ensures broadly shared prosperity are very compatible with economic competitiveness.
Liberals know it will be no easy task to renew our nation’s system of shared social commitments. We must encourage the President to lead this effort with actions that match his words.
Bob Lucore, a long-time ADA board member, is the former Director of Research and Policy for the United American Nurses and has worked for the Teamsters and the Department of Economic Research at the AFL-CIO. . He taught economics for several years at Centre College and Colorado State University and is currently studying Library and Information Science at San José State University. Bob is a member of UAW Local 1981, the National Writers Union.