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“Bibi’s Grand Slam” says John Podhoretz.
On Tuesday, Bibi Netanyahu gave the speech of his life before a joint session of Congress — and he has Barack Obama to thank for it.
Yes, the very same Barack Obama who hates Bibi, the same Obama who was furious the speech was being given at all, walked the bases full for Netanyahu and served up the sucker pitch he hit for a grand slam.
For six weeks, the president and his team have been letting it be known just how angry they are that the leader of the House of Representatives invited the Israeli prime minister to speak about the threat from Iran.
The enraged leaks and overt hostility toward the head of state of an ally have been unprecedented.
The White House even tried to engineer a mass Democratic boycott of the speech, an effort that either (take your pick) met with success because 50 members of his party agreed to it, or was a failure because 75 percent of elected Democrats on Capitol Hill defied him and chose to attend.
What did all of this do? It made the Netanyahu speech the most important political event of 2015 by far.
It elevated Netanyahu’s powerful case against a nuclear deal with Iran to the highest level possible — so that the leader of a country of 8 million people roughly the size of New Jersey now possesses as much authority to discuss the issue as the leader of the free world. …
Andrew Malcolm also had kudos for Netanyahu’s speech.
Well, now we all can understand why unidentified Obama aides sought so hard to cancel, delay, snipe and ultimately undermine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress Tuesday.
In his idiomatic English and speaking as a friend, Israel’s superior spokesman firmly delivered an eloquent, detailed and damning 3,900-word indictment of both Iran and the sell-out nuclear deal that the Obama administration is in the closing stages of drafting in Geneva. Netanyahu’s delivery was Churchillian. Indeed, the 65-year-old former special forces captain just became only the second foreign leader after Sir Winston to address Congress three times.
Despite dozens of Democrats boycotting the 40-minute address, the House chamber was packed with extra folding chairs squeezed in by pages. Netanyahu spoke with a broad historical stroke. He moved smoothly from Biblical times to the Holocaust to Iran’s provocative military exercises this week. He talked of centrifuges and even quoted Robert Frost.
The prime minister was interrupted by applause some 40 times. He was alternately moving, exhortatory, almost angry, determined and humble and grateful to both Americans and, surprisingly, Barack Obama, whom he praised profusely for his aid to Israel.
Embarrassingly, the American president could not find it in his conniving heart to rise above his innate political pettiness. In a forced photo-op, Obama spent 11 minutes claiming dismissively that he did not even watch the address. …
The increasing lack of economic mobility in our country is the subject of a long form essay by Yuval Levin. It’s close to 5,000 words, but worthwhile. And, at least it is the end of our week. We have taken particular care with the pull quotes which themselves total 2,000 words, so at least they provide a shorter alternative.
We Americans have always prided ourselves on the extraordinary degree of mobility this country has long made possible for its citizens—the idea that, with hard work and a little luck, an immigrant or a child of poor parents can start out with nothing and end up successful and rich. We still believe this about ourselves: International comparisons of public opinion find that Americans express far greater confidence than citizens of other developed nations that hard work is rewarded and that everyone has a real chance to rise out of poverty. But in fact, by many measures, the United States actually does not stand out among advanced economies in terms of economic mobility, and it has not for decades.
Many of us surely sense this even if we do not know all the facts and figures. There is a divergence between what many Americans want to believe about their country and what they know to be true about the way they and their friends and family live now. Americans at the bottom of the income scale do not have enough opportunities to move up, Americans in the middle feel stuck, younger Americans are having trouble getting started, and Americans in general seem less inclined to follow after opportunities. These various challenges are all distinct, but they stem from the same core problem: immobility.
The degradation of this central aspect of the so-called American dream is finally beginning to take shape as a potent political issue. The headline of a front-page story in the Washington Post in January put its finger on an increasingly evident shift in our economic debates: “Both parties agree: Economic mobility will be a defining theme of 2016 campaign.”
That the two parties would agree even on the subject of our economic arguments is quite a change from recent years, when they have mostly been talking past each other. And more remarkable still is that they seem to have turned to the right subject, too. Serious attention to the state of economic mobility could help us overcome the peculiar mix of acrimony and nostalgia that has enveloped our politics since this century began and could help us see far more clearly some of the most pressing challenges our country now confronts. …
… Relative mobility refers to a person’s economic status in relation to the nation as a whole. Economists often describe it in terms of moving up the income quintiles—the five slices of the American pie that measure the economic division in the country from poorest to richest—while the rest of us tend to think of it in the form of rags-to-riches stories. Can someone born in poverty today rise into the middle class and beyond it? Does the child of a middle-class family stand a reasonable chance of ending up wealthy? Or are people destined to end up roughly where they start?
For most of American history, these questions would have been answered in a manner flattering to the country’s own sense of itself as the world’s beacon of opportunity. No longer. By some measures, in fact, in terms of relative mobility, we are now lagging behind Canada and much of northern Europe. …
… Why, then, have our anxieties about mobility intensified only recently? The answer can be found in the state of absolute mobility, which tells a more complicated story. Absolute mobility involves changes in people’s living standards not relative to society as a whole but relative to their own past or to the prior generation. Are you better off than you were four years ago? Are you wealthier than your parents were at your age?
By this measure, America looks rather good over the long run but rather bad over a shorter run—and the difference is why mobility has now become a priority. Data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project show that the vast majority of Americans, about 84 percent, now have a higher income than their parents did at their age, adjusted for both inflation and family size. Such intergenerational absolute mobility is actually highest among the poor: Fully 93 percent of Americans in the lowest fifth of earners have higher incomes and greater purchasing power than their parents did at their age, compared with 70 percent of Americans in the top fifth. Overall American living standards have risen over time, and this has lifted essentially everyone’s living standards some, even if it has not done much to change people’s relative positions in society.
But the significance of this good news is limited in two ways that will help us to clarify the mobility challenge as policymakers must now confront it. First, strong absolute mobility amid weak relative mobility means that while people are more comfortable where they are in life, they are not moving ahead in skills or status. The mother working long days behind a restaurant counter in the expectation that her children should have better opportunities than she did would not be satisfied to hear that her children will be a little better paid for working behind that same counter all their lives.
Second, and perhaps most important, absolute mobility has declined significantly in the last two decades, so that while most Americans are doing better than their parents did at the same age, they are often not doing as well as similarly situated families (and maybe even their own families) were doing ten or even 20 years ago. This is the most pressing way in which many Americans are feeling the sting of immobility these days, with stagnant wages creating the sense that they’re running in place.
The simplest way to illustrate this trend is to consider the median family. Adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2013 dollars, the median American family income was $52,432 in 1989 and $51,939 in 2013, according to Census Bureau data. In other words, the purchasing power of the median family has actually declined a little over the course of the last quarter century. …
… What, then, might a response look like? Having sharpened our sense of the problem a little, it may be helpful to think in terms of five categories of steps that policymakers could take, at least for a start.
The first is the most general and the easiest for Republicans to embrace: growth. Because growth is a necessary if not sufficient condition for improved economic mobility, policymakers need to create and sustain the right environment for economic dynamism.
This means a growth-friendly tax code, …
… The second category of needed reforms would seek to address persistently low mobility among poor and lower-middle-class Americans. It involves clearing up bottlenecks, often created by public policy, which hold people back from pursuing opportunity and prosperity. A bottleneck is a particular kind of obstacle: It is a function of a narrowing of options. The upward path into and through the middle class has clearly gotten narrower in America in recent decades.
One primary culprit is our higher-education system. A college degree has become an increasingly essential ticket into middle-class life even as higher education has grown more expensive and less edifying. Tuition costs have tripled over the past three decades, so that an average year of college now costs about half the annual income of the average American family. …
… The third facet of a mobility agenda would involve lifting burdens imposed on the middle class and the poor by some perverse incentives and distortions in today’s welfare state. For instance, the structure of our entitlement and tax systems means that parents are overtaxed—paying for today’s entitlements while bearing the costs of sustaining tomorrow’s. A significant increase in the child tax credit that could reduce families’ payroll-tax burdens as well as their income-tax burdens would make an enormous difference to millions of middle-class families pressed by stagnating wages. And such tax relief for families would be a natural companion to the corporate tax reform necessary for stronger growth.
The unintentional marriage penalties in the tax code also burden many middle-class families, and similar penalties in most welfare programs (from the Earned Income Tax Credit to Medicaid, food stamps, and others) create disincentives to marriage that hurt the poor and counteract the very aims of these programs. No less perversely, many means-tested aid programs create disincentives to work, since working leads to benefit cuts that in many cases can outweigh the appeal of earned income. Correcting such disincentives would be no simple matter, but a number of conservatives have proposed promising ideas for doing so in recent years. …
… The fourth element of a mobility agenda would go beyond lifting burdens and focus on the most difficult and important part of the mobility puzzle: the curse of entrenched poverty. This would involve the next stage of welfare reform, and it’s the arena where a conservative approach to problem solving can do the most good.
The overwhelming fact about our half century of intense and costly efforts to combat entrenched poverty is that they have not worked. …
… This was the essence of Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal last year. Ryan would let states choose to replace the full amount of money they now receive to administer means-tested federal welfare programs (such as food stamps, housing assistance, utilities subsidies, and others) with a single, consolidated “opportunity grant.” They could then develop their own approaches to spending the money to help their poor residents rise, provided that these approaches involve programs that require work, emphasize reaching self-sufficiency, and prove their effectiveness over time. And states would have to provide each service through at least two competing providers, only one of which can be a state agency.
Liberals tend to see proposals like this as embodiments of some kind of fetish to privatize. But in fact, they are expressions of humility. Experimentation is what you do when you do not know the answer. …
… Finally, the fifth element of a conservative mobility agenda should involve drawing a clear distinction between welfare assistance and disability benefits. In particular, the Social Security Disability Insurance program has come to function as a kind of welfare system of last resort, but it is very badly suited to that purpose. The share of working-age adults on SSDI has more than doubled since 1980, from 2.3 percent to 5 percent of the workforce, or about 9 million Americans. The increase is quickly bankrupting the program (its trust fund will be depleted next year) while contributing to the decline in workforce participation in America.
Part of the increase is driven by the aging of the population, as many baby boomers are now in the age range most prone to disabling injuries and health problems. But the actual prevalence of disability in the working-age population has grown at nowhere near the rate of SSDI claims. …
…These are, of course, only the barest outlines of an agenda. But these five categories of steps—sustaining an environment for growth, clearing up bottlenecks, removing policy burdens, enabling vigorous experimentation in welfare and education, and separating welfare from disability support—offer the beginning of a conservative answer to the riddle of mobility.
Conservatives are far better positioned than liberals to take up the challenge of mobility. The left is wedded to the structure of our welfare state and persuaded that moving money around will address the problems we confront. But when we consider the particulars of the mobility puzzle, we can see that what is missing—as the very term mobility suggests—is not so much money as dynamism and energy. Injecting our economy with such energy requires us to allow more Americans to benefit from our free-market system, rather than shielding people from it, and would therefore require us to move beyond the liberal welfare state rather than expand it. …
… In a message to Congress on the Fourth of July, 1861, amid the painful early setbacks of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sought to articulate what made the struggle worthwhile. When it came to describing what we valued in our government, Lincoln said this:
On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.
America has often been gloriously successful in advancing that cause, but it has been notably less so in recent decades. We have ignored that fact for too long and must now work to ensure that the rhetorical turn toward mobility in our national politics is followed up with substance and action.