August 3, 2008

assessing Obama's Blueprint for Change

After watching McCain's nasty (but effective) "celebrity" commercial today, I thought it would be only fair to Obama if I read his Blueprint for Change, which is, as far as I know, the most substantiative statement of his public policy agenda.

After reading it, I have to say Obama does have definite plans for the country, and some good ideas. Unfortunately, he has far more ideas than he has money to pay for them, nor would the government likely do a good job at many of the things he would like it to do.

In the following, I review Obama's blueprint section-by-section. If McCain has a similar document, I'd like to know. This was quite enlightening.

  • Introductory Letter: He claims to be against the Red America, Blue America divide. It didn't take long in the primary campaign for it to become clear just how liberal he was though. The question is whether that's a good thing.
  • Government Lobbying, Ethics Reform, and Accountability: no one like lobbying (except for lobbyists). He makes some good suggestions, although they would be hard to implement. I like his proposal to create a search engine to track federal grants, etc. Obama is more likely to make government information readily accessible online than McCain.
  • Universal Health Care: The health care system in the U.S. is broken. No one disputes that. But with the recent scandals at the VA and Medicare running gargantuan deficits, can anyone seriously think that the government could do a better job than the insurance companies? We don't live in Sweden, or even in Canada. Anyone who claims they can create new entitlement programs while still cutting taxes is out of touch with economic reality. Oh, and the "lowering costs" is full of every politicians' dream - unfunded mandates.
    State-level health care programs, such as MassHealth, stand a better chance of working - especially since they don't try to cover everyone. A federal program would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
  • Strengthening the Economy: Apparently Obama thinks that the government can take a leading role in bailing out the free market economy. I am skeptical. This deserves a more detailed list:
    1. Taxes: No one can get elected without promising a middle-class tax cut. Unfortunately, the middle class never asks how they'll pay for it. As a young American, the inclination of my elders to take a "pay later" philosophy to the national debt is deeply disturbing.
      Real tax reform is needed, but it would require structural change, not more special provisions for those with whom you want to curry favor.
      As far as his proposal to simplify tax filings, I would support it if I knew what it was, or I trusted the experts that he cites.
    2. Trade: His statements here are code words for Democratic opposition to free trade. Apparently, he thinks that we can put up barriers between us and the world economy without feeling negative effects. I wonder how he expects opposition to agreements like NAFTA to increase our standing in the world.
    3. Technology: He will "encourage the deployment of the most modern communications infrastructure." With whose money? Ours, apparently. Well, actually, my generation's, since he's not going to raise taxes to pay for it now, but simply let the debt accumulate.
      Seems to me the free market does a better job of deploying new technologies than the government does. Simply compare government websites with those of the Fortune 500.
    4. Labor: I will refrain from comment on his policies in regard to labor unions and workers' rights, since I don't know much about the subject, nor does he say much to enlighten me. As far as raising the minimum wage goes, I can only say he must like the prospect of more under-the-table employment.
      The Earned Income Tax Credit is a good thing, in light of the brokenness of our current tax system, but comprehensive tax reform (such as replacing the income tax with a sales tax from which low-income individuals were exempt) would be better, I think.
    5. Home Ownership: I thought middle-class homeowners already got tax credits. I'd like to know how he's defining the middle class. If it's anything like Clinton's definition, apparently those making $100,000 a year are included.
      This is the only section so far in which he's said anything about how he's paying for his proposals, and even here he only says "partially."
    6. Bankruptcy Reform: I like the idea of an exemption in bankruptcy law for those who file due to medical expenses. But, like all good ideas, it might have unintended consequences.
    7. Credit Cards: I like the idea of a rating system for credit cards, but I think that a non-government agency would do a better job. It could become a way for credit card companies to gain a competitive advantage, such that they would voluntarily apply for a rating. The Credit Card Bill of Rights' provisions seem reasonable. However, if consumers had better information about credit cards before they signed up for them, the Bill of Rights (and its associated regulatory burden) might not be necessary.
      I support the idea of a cap on payday loan interest rates.
    8. Work-Family: I must admit, having worked in an after-school program, I am biased in this area. I have lobbied for increased funding for after-school programs in the past, and will do so again. I think that government funding for after-school programs can be beneficial, since most after-school programs are small community-based or faith-based organizations, and the funding does not generally come with too many strings attached. I don't know about the specifics of the 21st Century Learning Centers program, though. It might be more bureaucratic than others.
      I wish that Obama would also promise to decrease the regulatory burden on after-school programs. Then they might not need so much funding.
      The idea of a child-care tax credit for low-income families sounds good, although it might be better simply to lower taxes. The more tax credits we add, the more complex the already-labyrinthine tax system gets.
  • Social Security & Retirement: I'm glad that Obama supports raising the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, so they apply to more than the first $97,000 of income. This took more political courage than announcing new government benefit programs did. However, if Obama were really going to be honest about the long-term solvency of Social Security, one would think he would apply the same standard to his own proposals, like universal health care.
    Full disclosure of company pension statements sounds good. Automatic workplace pension enrollment might be good. Eliminating income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 sounds good, if he had a plan for paying for it.
    Most economists believe that the creation of the Medicare prescription drug plan was imprudent, especially since it covers seniors who had previous coverage. Obama is apparently aware of the plan's problems, but lacks the courage to say that the plan shouldn't have covered those who already had comparable or better coverage.
  • Education: Obama's "Zero to Five" plan for universal pre-school seems misguided. It would be different if he were saying he would fund the expansion of existing programs in the private sector. As a government program, however, I can't see this going well.
    I'm glad Obama wants to reform No Child Left Behind. Using students' performance on standardized tests as the primary measure of teachers' (and schools') performance has had serious unintended consequences. I like the idea of a Teacher Residency Program, but it seems redundant with Teach for America. Why not simply fund that instead?
    Funding youth intervention, after-school programs, and summer college outreach programs is perhaps the best part of his education plan, since these programs operate "closer to the ground" and thus have better accountability.
    A $4,000 college tax credit would be excellent - if we can find a way to pay for it. This is probably the best of his tax credit plans, since investing in education is critical for our country's future economic and social well-being.
    Eliminating the FAFSA and simply using the income tax information is a great idea. And it would actually save money.
  • Energy: The cap-and-trade plan was the worst, and yet the most famous, part of the Kyoto protocol. It's really just 21st-century colonialism, since it enables the wealthy to "offset" their need to curb pollution onto the poor. A carbon tax would provide real economic incentives to the polluters.
    I won't comment on the rest of his plan, other than to say I'm skeptical that all the government spending and new regulatory requirements will help "strengthen America's economy," as he promised to do earlier in the document.
  • Fiscal Discipline: Obama says he will reinstitute pay-as-you-go rules for federal spending. I can't imagine how he will be able to get his own new programs passed, then.
    I'm glad he wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts, but he should use the revenues to pay down the deficit, not institute dozens of new programs.
    More disclosure of earmarks is good. I'm glad he wants federal contracts to be competitively bid. That was another one of the Bush administration's many offenses against conservativism.
    I'm glad he would work to close off-shore tax havens, and special interest corporate tax deductions.
  • Rural Issues: He says he won't subsidize agribusiness. Good. Country of Origin labeling also sounds good, as does changing the FCC's rural phone program to provide broadband. Still nothing about how he would pay for this and other programs, though.
  • Women's Issues: He will "make safeguarding women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority." At least he's honest.
  • Immigration Reform: He doesn't say much on this subject. I'd have to know more to comment. I'm glad that he would allow undocumented immigrants to pay a fine and then get on the path to citizenship. Mass deportations aren't really an option, as much as Dobbs, O'Reilly and their ilk may rail against illegal immigrants. The War on Illegal Immigration would be about as successful as any of the other Wars on abstract nouns have been. I wish I knew what Obama would do to "promote economic development in Mexico," especially because of his stance on trade.
  • Poverty: Most of these programs have been mentioned before in other sections. I won't repeat my earlier comments.
    I understand the Community Development Block Grant program is quite good. I'm glad that he supports it.
  • Universal Voluntary Public Service: Again, I am biased. His bold plan to expand AmeriCorps has my approval. Government funding is most effective when it is sent back out of the government to private community-based and faith-based organizations. I only hope that McCain, in response, will remember his own 2001 speech in support of AmeriCorps. Ideally, the need for national service would be one thing that the two candidates can agree upon, Obama having served as a community organization and McCain in the military.
  • Civil Rights: The DOJ is in desperate need of reform after the scandals of the Bush Administration. He promises to reverse its politicization, which is good. However, I also fear judicial overreaching by the EEOC, etc., which can have unintended consequences. I am glad he would eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder-based cocaine. Of course, I would probably go farther than he would in reducing penalties for drug possession.
  • Securing America/Restoring Standing in the World: With Iraq still at risk for civil war, I am skeptical of Obama's judgment in setting a timetable for withdrawal. While I don't believe the war was justified, we have an obligation now to ensure the security and stability of the region. I question whether he (or anyone) has the expertise to bring a resolution to the conflict through purely diplomatic means.
    We certainly should exercise our full diplomatic options with Iran, but we can't offer all carrots and no sticks, as his plan ("incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization," etc.) seems to.
    I agree that we should be willing to meet with foreign leaders, but not without conditions, as Obama seems to believe. If Bush had gone to Iran or to North Korea, would things really be better? Let's not run from one extreme (nation-building, preemptive strikes) to the other (diplomatic naiveté).
    The Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015 is worthy of support, but we need to be careful that our foreign aid isn't simply creating dependency and shoring up hostile regimes.
    "Obama will secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years." With his bare hands? I am glad though that he won't threaten to drop nuclear bombs on terrorists. Acceptance of civilian casualties in war has gone too far, ever since Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden.
    Obama says he will make great investments in the military, and increase the number of troops. Somehow I doubt that he will be able to do this, while also enacting all his sweeping domestic programs.
    I like his plans to increase openness and bipartisanship on foreign policy matters. Hopefully, McCain would do the same. I can't imagine either could be worse than the Bush administrator.
    I'm glad Obama and McCain are opposed to the genocide in the Sudan. However, I don't know if they will really be able to do anything about it. China's really the one with the leverage here.
  • Veterans' Issues: Ah, yes, the healthcare system already run by the government. Obama promises to reform it. Hopefully, he would do this before he tries to start a totally new government healthcare system.

Posted by donovan at 12:27 PM | Category: Politics

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