It is probably not wise to write a blog on the evening of the State of the Union address–before listening to the address–but it isn’t the most foolish thing I have done in life. Scripture has a number of warnings about being foolish, and I am hoping that Americans take heed. President Obama unveiled a plan on January 9th that would provide free community college to young Americans willing to work for it. The requirement to work for it is not yet fleshed out. In spite of the fact that 40% of community college students already pay no tuition, President Obama does not think that is enough. It should be free, he thinks, for anyone who wants it.
President Obama is starting to remind me of the Louisiana Kingfish, Huey Long, who was governor of that state from 1928-1932 and a U.S. Senator for the three years that followed. His term in the Senate was cut short by an assassin in 1935. Long was a demagogue that pandered to Louisianans to gain political power and ran the state like a giant political machine. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and introduced his outside-of-the-box New Deal plan, Long was concerned he might be eclipsed. He quickly developed a critique of Roosevelt’s plan saying it did not do enough and government ought to do more. The radio was essential in his rise to political power and he introduced a new plan on his radio show. He called the plan the Share Our Wealth plan. He asked his listeners to send him dollar to join the “Share Our Wealth” club and laughed all the way to the bank. He garnered over seven million members. Yet the fact that he could get seven million depression ravaged Americans to send him a precious dollar pales in comparison to his unmitigated grasp for the Presidency. He challenged Roosevelt’s New Deal by telling Americans his Share Our Wealth Plan would provide a guaranteed income of $2000 per year (enough to provide for a home, car, and radio for every family), free college education, pensions for the elderly (Social Security did not yet exist though Roosevelt created it at least to some degree in response to Long’s idea), a thirty hour work week and four weeks of yearly vacation for American labor, and healthcare for veterans. Long had a misguided plan for paying for all of this by confiscating fortunes over fifty million and yearly income over one million dollars. Long’s plan, if implemented, would have been significantly underfunded in its first year and would have had no funding thereafter. Simple laws of incentive reveal that if one will have any income above one million dollars taken away in taxes, one will simply not work to earn more money than that figure. Given the concerns we already have with funding the President’s healthcare plan, I am skeptical his community college plan can be funded any better.
What bothers me more, however, is the approach to politics that is evidenced here. Since the American people made it clear in the mid-term elections that he had lost favor with them, President Obama has taken presidential authority to virtually unparalleled levels. It is hard to escape the notion that he is simply thumbing his nose at the electorate. In this particular case, however, it seems he is simply pandering. What more can the Democratic Party have the government do to garner support? Long understood this premise. He promised the farm—literally—and much more. At a time when upwards of twenty-five percent of the people were out of work, this plan was guaranteed to find support. With unemployment now under six percent for the first time in six years, we should not be so easily manipulated. The old adage attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “The government large enough to give you everything you want, is large enough to take everything you have,” is certainly true. The initial estimate to pay for his community college plan is $60 Billion and one has to assume it would actually be much higher. Community colleges will need to be expanded, the government agencies that dispense this money will have to be created, and states will demand more and more funding to deal with the devastation this plan will cause on university campuses around the country. I could go on and discuss the impact of this plan on state universities, how it will destroy the private college system in America, force the higher education system in America to be totally reliant on the federal government, and require significantly higher federal income taxes on the 49% percent of Americans who actually pay them, but I am more concerned about the further devastation of the political system. How much more does the President have to promise to the American people before we realize this is nothing more than a reincarnation of Huey Long’s plan? Huey Long may have cared about the people of his state, but given what we know about him, it is clear he cared much more about his own political power. I won’t presume upon President Obama’s motives, but they really don’t matter. What matters is that he, and we, need to consider the ramifications of further government give aways.
Who doesn’t want something for free? In a system as convoluted as the federal income tax system, it is easy to think that we might gain something from the government for nothing. The reality is quite the opposite. It will cost us dearly. Chief among the costs is the loss of democracy. When politicians can offer to give you a tangible benefit in return for your vote, the democratic system is prostituted. I am sorry to use such a coarse word, but it makes an important point. Such a quid pro quo completely undermines the democratic process. Why is it so hard for politicians to get our government’s spending under control? The answer is simple. No one wants to vote for the politician who says, “Vote for me, I will give you less.” Can you name the last politician who suggested we should cut Social Security benefits? It is very hard for our political system to encourage fiscal responsibility because we crossed the line. When FDR inaugurated the New Deal, politicians could advertise specific tangible benefits for political support. All Huey Long did was take it to its logical (or really illogical) extreme. It has taken us a while to get back to that level of extremism, but President Obama has reintroduced it onto the American scene. Let us hope the American people are not as foolish as he thinks we are.