State of the Union from the Kitchen Table 2010

February 13th, 2010

by Jane Thomas

Each year I write a State of the Union from the Kitchen Table. As a general rule, I do not share it with others; however, I have been encouraged by my friends and family to do so this year.

It has become a rare experience in American politics to elect a President who appears to sincerely want to solve the challenges facing our nation. We have grown so accustomed to Presidents who come into office with an ideology and who spend their efforts in imposing that ideology on the citizens, whether it works for the general public or not, that to observe the anger with a President who is sufficiently pragmatic to tackle the problems comprehensively only shows how far off track our system has fallen.

More and more, it has become obvious that even a system theoretically based on citizen control (in essence, a democracy based political system—whether direct or representative) has the potential for corruption and abuse. Of course, being history and political systems oriented, I tend to believe that the failure to educate our citizenship to the challenges and responsibilities involved in making a democratic system work has allowed our system to break down. One of the tenets of a democratic system is education. But, education has been diluted in the US to such an extent that it is no longer sufficient to provide the necessary foundation for such a complex political system as democracy via the representative process used in our country. And this situation was just exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court decision that stripped us of the limited election reform that, though grossly insufficient, was at least an attempt to rectify some of the monetary influences in our electoral process.

When that is placed beside the potential abuses of a capitalist economic system that, if left unregulated, can corrupt and influence the political system, you get what we have today in the US. It may sound good, but, unless these systems (both political and economic) are continually monitored and, if needed, regulated to assure that they serve the good of the people, they will most certainly be manipulated to assure that they serve the good of the few. We have just experienced two decades of deregulation and have rediscovered (“rediscovered” because the country discovered this in the early 20th century, but, then, somewhere along the line we have ceased to study history and thus had forgotten) what Alan Greenspan calls the minor abuses of the capitalist system. Of course, he was convinced that the system, itself, would rectify these glitches. At least he was so convinced until recently, when we found ourselves struggling to stop the slide into an abyss that his guidance had launched. Since then, he has concluded that some regulation is needed. Wow! Do you think? With the job market, real estate and the lending industry in the tank, do you think that a bit more regulation on the economic system might have been in line? With medical insurance companies, originally launched as non-profits, now earning billions in profits and pharmaceutical companies pouring billions into advertising directly to the general public encouraging them to ask their doctors for ever more drugs, do you think we need to take a long look at the giant corporations? When did we decide to by-pass the doctors and take the sale of prescription drugs directly to the public? More importantly, have we ever asked ourselves why the pharmaceutical companies would do that? And, while we are at it, have we asked ourselves why our public administered health care agencies are prohibited from negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies for better prices? Why were the lending companies allowed to lend money to people who had no hope of making the payments? And, why have we not produced a car that gets better mileage or uses something besides a gasoline engine? Does the general public know what “K” Street is in our capitol city and what influence is wielded by the occupants of “K” Street?

We have a major budget problem that cannot be fixed without tackling the cost of health care. However, to effectively tackle health care to protect the public and deal with the cost factor the approach must either be comprehensive or piecemeal within a comprehensive plan. Yet, our system makes comprehensive approaches to any problem almost impossible and the frequent elections make piecemeal approaches within a comprehensive plan equally impossible. To fix health care, we would have to regulate the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, initiate tort reform, decrease the cost of medical education, encourage general practitioners, curb public consumption of obesity causing food and drinks, increase healthy habits such as exercise and improved diet, strengthen the public transportation systems and lessen private auto use (a move that would be very advantageous for the country in many other ways also), and get our children outside and away from the idiot boxes. Consider the fact that we have now oriented our children to a series of shallow TV programs and games that are violence, reckless driving or illegal action based. What on earth are we thinking?

As a student of the 19th century struggle for the British government to get a handle on an international company (British East India Company) with resources greater than the national government’s, it is especially interesting to watch our government struggle with the multi-national, globally oriented companies that play such a major role in today’s global economy and influence our domestic decisions through our electoral process. Our public appears to be naïve enough to believe that such companies will act altruistically, something that is never going to happen—not by the company as a whole or by the individuals that make the company’s decisions. There in lies the fallacy in a political system based on an elective process if the process requires private funding in the campaign stages. Companies are not in business for your or my welfare. They are in business to make money, a process that requires a product, a favorable market and the freedom to reach that market without undue encumbrances. So, how do you propose to keep jobs in the US when labor is cheaper overseas? If you want to keep the jobs, you will have to figure out how to make it more advantageous for businesses to produce in the US than to produce in another country and then import to the US. Do you tariff? Do you lower wages in the US? Do you tax companies for income produced in other countries? Do you look for new niches and invent new products to produce? And, even more importantly, how do you keep them from manipulating the political process to their own advantage?

There was a day when I thought the war with Germany and Japan was the worst that could happen. Then, I lived through the fears of the Cold War and the horrors described in On the Beach thinking these were the worst that could happen. I never expected to see our country so reduced by intellectual mediocrity that it was unable to function within the most advanced form of democracy that has yet been launched in a large, multi-ethnic society. Maybe that is the worst that can happen. Our students no longer study political and economic systems. Our students no longer master our language, or any languages, and many are even unable to communicate well. Math and science are important, but so are language and, given our form of government, political and economic systems. It is apparently not possible to make freedom work unless you understand how to make it work. Are we so sure that the belief in freedom negates the idea of the whole first and then the individual (a concept that obviously also has abuses if not checked), that we have leaned too far to the individual supersedes the whole? Can we not learn the value of both and understand the need for checks to avoid the abuses of both? If not, can this system of freedom and democracy ever work for the good of the whole? Am I seeing this great experiment fail? If so, maybe that is the worst that can happen.

From this kitchen table, I still have hope but do not see a lot of light unless we begin to rethink our political and economic systems to make them work for the many rather than only for the few, unless we learn that avarice does not produce stability, security and happiness, and success is better measured by accomplishment than wealth. Although some will say that such a philosophy must surely classify me as a liberal, I would argue that this philosophy more accurately classifies me as a caring human, with a liberal philosophy where needed and a conservative philosophy as needed to bring pragmatic solutions to the challenges facing this nation. Labels are a waste and denote ideology. Pragmatic solutions based on shared awareness will produce far better results than dogmatism.

Jane Thomas has a B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Letters from Kings College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has taught at the high school and college levels in the US, Thailand, and Scotland.  She’s now an archivist and does research on terrorism and disaster recovery.

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8 Responses to “State of the Union from the Kitchen Table 2010”

  1. Tom |

    Thanks for an outstanding article, Jane. I strongly agree that

    Labels are a waste and denote ideology. Pragmatic solutions based on shared awareness will produce far better results than dogmatism.

    If we could all accept that concept and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, a lot more could be accomplished than what’s now possible in national politics. That doesn’t mean that liberals and conservatives will be sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya anytime soon, but they certainly could work together much more positively for the good of the country.

  2. larry |

    I can agree with much of what you’ve said. How much change would you allow this “pragmatic” president to make?

  3. Robert |

    I see you support this president who though he wants change, his change would not and is not good for this country. Sorry to hear that you hate America so much you wish it to change to a socialistic nation….because that is what Obama wants for it.

  4. Robert |

    You are right though that labels are not a good way to push the agendas of the day. But it is also right that to ignore what has been changing in America is not good for national security or anything else, unless you wish to America to fundamentally change so that we can’t be able to help the world when the need arises as we have so many times in the past. America’s greatness comes from the will of the American people to do the best they can for themselves and everyone else.

  5. d |

    Why do conservatives,sorry for the label,so often yell, you hate this country, whenever you see the need for a more humanitarian state,than a greedy,me,me,me one? What’s benefits big business,rarely benefits the regular guy. Insurance companies did indeed have record profits and regular guys ,for the most part,cannot afford to even have insurance. The premiums are going up again next month,due to the record profits, and some change there must happen,or we will all be priced right out of healthcare. Great article and I agree with you,we need to change and soon. The past administrations have almost ruined this great nation,but this one needs to get with the program,and soon. We need this president to really do something,not just talk pretty.

  6. Tom |

    Robert, your belief that people who disagree with you are socialists who hate America is unadulterated nonsense.

    I happen to think that some of the things that Obama wants to do are good, and I admire his willingness to adjust his positions to reflect reality and practical politics. I guess that puts me among the folks you think are socialists and America haters. The mistake you and extremists like you make is that you don’t know much of anything about the people you’re accusing. Like me, for example.

  7. Jane Thomas |

    Robert, It might intrigue to know that I did not support Obama during the election and that I do not necessarily support all of his proposals today. I said I supported the attempt to take a comprehensive approach to the challenges facing our country and tried to make the point that doing so, although most efficient, is almost impossible given the current implementation of our political system. I happen to think that we have a great system, but it is not perfect and can be abused. Today, the elective process is being abused through the financial and lobbying influence of large corporations, which, in turn, prevent us from tackling some of our greatest problems. You are absolutely right when you say “America’s greatness comes from the will of the American people to do the best they can for themselves and everyone else.” But, that is an individual will, not a corporate will. The good American’s need to take a long look at what has happened in our elective process and take back the process from the corporations. The great advantage of democracy is that the ultimate power lies with the people, but it only works if the people assume that power. If not, the vacuum for control of that power will certainly be filled by others.


  8. Brian Bagent |

    Jane, the problem isn’t with corporate America. What you see in the corruption within the business world is but a symptom. The problem is that we have a congress that wields such power. If we were to repeal the 16th and 17th amendments, most of the lobbyists would simply go away because the power to grant them favors would be largely gone.

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