The Death of an Obasm
By czs Posted in 2008 — Comments (77) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Promoted by Jeff. Again, *where* else can you get this kind of pure gold? That's what I thought.
I am having trouble fully appreciating the phenomenon that is Senator Obama. Certainly, Obama’s overpowering charisma has an amazing effect on any listener, such as spontaneous tears or quasi-erotic tingling in one’s leg. (The latter phenomenon is dubbed the "Matthews syndrome” after a man whose capacity for rational thought has been completely destroyed by the syndrome’s effects.) For me, however, any such tingling is immediately recognized and countered by my brain, which forces the nascent Obasm to a premature and unsatisfying conclusion.
Usually, my brain counters the Obasm by asking difficult and disturbing questions. For example, I will begin trembling with excitement when the senator’s magnetic voice rings out with an inspiring, “Yes, we can.” However, as soon as the leg starts tingling, my brain quashes the excitement with nagging questions: “What, exactly, is it that you think we can do? Do you really think we can afford to do that right now? Shouldn’t we take care of our other responsibilities before we start doing it? How are we going to do it, anyway? Are we going to do it your way, like always, or can we do it my way for once?” (Interestingly, my wife uses a similar tactic to quell tingling sensations. She even uses some of the same questions.)
(More below the fold...)
After hearing Obama’s speech this Wednesday at a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, however, I hoped my brain would finally have some satisfactory answers for its persistent questions (and thus permit me to experience more of that leg-tingling goodness). Obama decided to make a tentative foray into substance, laying out some details on where he wants to take the country economically. We learned that Obama’s grand vision of the economic future is… the past. Yes, “the next great chapter in America's story” is, apparently, a manufacturing economy reminiscent of the early twentieth century.
Obama’s foray into substance begins with a description of the utopian manufacturing economy we had once upon a time, in the long, long ago:
It was nearly a century ago that the first tractor rolled off the assembly line at this plant. The achievement didn't just create a product to sell or profits for General Motors. It led to a shared prosperity enjoyed by all of Janesville. Homes and businesses began to sprout up along Milwaukee and Main Streets. Jobs were plentiful, with wages that could raise a family and benefits you could count on.
Later in the speech, Sen. Obama (with trademark optimism) shows us how this utopia has fallen apart over “the last decades”:
[One of the] major economic challenge[s] we have to address is the cost crisis facing the middle-class and the working poor. … It's the result of skyrocketing costs, stagnant wages, and disappearing benefits that are pushing more and more Americans towards a debt spiral from which they can't escape.
The contrast is beautifully rendered, as always – the old, unionized manufacturing economy offered “plentiful” jobs, wages to “raise a family” and benefits “you could count on,” but the modern, post-union service economy offers nothing but “stagnant wages,” “skyrocketing costs,” and “disappearing benefits.” Obama punctuates the message with some of his trademark inspiration, assuring the audience that the change in our economy is “pushing more and more Americans into a debt spiral from which they can’t escape”
(I am excited to see that Obama not only lent substance to his economic vision, but also rhetorically surpassed President Reagan himself. After all, Reagan only had the courage to ask us, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Obama has the nerve to go well beyond such short-sighted thinking. “Not only are you worse off than you were four years ago,” says Obama, “you are worse off then you were nearly a century ago.” It don’t know if this rhetoric is hopeful, but it is definitely audacious.)
Obama’s inspirational rhetoric of America’s decline put the tingle back in my leg – and oh, was it good. Unfortunately, my brain was not satisfied, and started picking away with typical Washington-style cynicism (also called “research”). In 1919, the year in which “the first tractor rolled off the assembly line” at the Janesville plant and ushered in the apex of the American economy, the average wage for automobile workers was $0.67 per hour. This equates to an annual salary of approximately $14,000 in today's dollars.
When my brain discovered this, there was hell to pay. “So,” asks my brain, “Is Sen. Obama stating that we were better off in the economy of the early 1900’s? Is $14,000 a year is a wage ‘that could raise a family’? Did 1919 auto workers have ‘benefits you can count on?’”
“No,” I argue to my brain, “Sen. Obama could not be that dense and disingenous. He went to Harvard Law!”
So my brain gives Sen. Obama the benefit of the doubt (as so many do, these days) and assumes that he was actually referring to a later, more prosperous era of the American auto worker. After all, the brain notes, by 1959 the UAW had raised the wage of the auto worker to $2.66 an hour – a salary of $39,000 in today's dollars. That is a wage that could arguably “raise a family” and a job with “benefits you could count on.”
“See,” I say, “Sen. Obama wants to bring the auto workers back to this golden era, before the stagnant wages and skyrocketing costs caused by the Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest and Cheney’s subsidization of corporate greed!”
My brain responds quietly, pointing out that today the average line worker at GM makes $60,000 a year and is granted a staggering array of benefits. “In fact,” states the brain, “we haven’t moved away from some golden era of ‘shared prosperity.’ Auto workers are paid far better now than they ever were.”
“But”, I stammer, “maybe the workers are doing better, but the fat cats that own GM are taking more than their share. Obama said so in the speech: the new economy is one where ‘only a few prosper’ and we need to return to a ‘shared prosperity’ by restoring ‘balance and fairness.’”
My brain responds that that GM lost $2 billion dollars in 2006 and $39 billion in 2007, and asks what profits, exactly, the fat cats should be sharing. “Maybe,” my brain asks, “Obama thinks workers should take pay cuts to help offset the losses. After all, he does talk about ‘shared sacrifice.’”
At this point, my leg stops tingling.
Sensing an opening, my brain goes in for the kill: “The truth is,” sneers my brain, “this is nothing new. Democratic candidates from Teddy Kennedy to Gary Hart to Mike Dukakis have tried to prop up the old manufacturing economy, with its promise of lifelong employment at comfortable middle-class wages. They largely succeeded in their short-term goals, bolstering the unions, increasing wages regardless of corporate performance, and ensuring job security regardless of the quality of the work.”
“But you can’t create a quality product with a government mandate, you can’t unionize workers into productivity, and you can’t regulate an industry into competitiveness. So, the quality of the American auto product declined and the industry lost whatever competitive edge it had. Declining revenue, exacerbated by the burden of oppresive union contracts, eliminated industry profits, and when the profits left, the jobs left with them. The truth is, we simply can’t sustain or create jobs in this country unless we sustain and encourage the profits needed to fund those jobs.”
I know there is a comeback to this. I heard it in Obama's speech. Suddenly, I remember the counter-argument. “Yes, we can,” I proclaim proudly.
“No, you can’t,” my brain sighs.
I had nothing more, and my Obasm died right on the vine - foiled by the pesky logic my brain insists on applying. Obama rightly attacks such logic in his stump speech, referring to it with derision and disgust as “the politics of fear.” However, until my brain can see fit to join Obama's movement and abandon the failed philosophies of the past (i.e. logic and evidence-based argument), I guess I’ll just have to keep taking cold showers and thinking about John McCain.
That will take the tingle out of anybody.