Prominent speech defects undermine political debate

Obama’s supporters are restless.  A good number of them feel he’s bending over backwards to placate his right wing Republican and extreme Tea Party opponents.  Many are certainly among  the 89% of the populace the Gallup Poll finds dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed. 

Some of the problem has to do with the language Obama and his White House crew employ as they try to describe America’s predicaments.   For example, as he talks about the recession, unemployment and jobs, Obama is inclined to say, the “some Folks on Capitol Hill” are not coming together to address the nation’s real problems.   Or “some folks in Washington” are unwilling to work toward a reasonable compromise.  While his points certainly true to some extent , the identity of the troublemakers as “some folks” misses the point in ways seem weak and evasive.  Why not just give his listeners and the names and addresses of the individuals and groups who have, quite openly (!), stood in the way of initiatives the President thinks necessary.   

As it stands, Obama’s rhetoric and, maybe, even his vision seem clouded by an unwillingness to call out those who cause the obstructions.  Perhaps this speech defect will vanish as the election nears, although I think this would only happen if the polls and focus groups suggest that a tactical shift toward clearer language is in order.  

This recurring malady in Obama’s way of speaking has some serious consequences.  First, it lends credence to the false impression that “both sides do it” as regards gumming up the activities of government and dumbing down crucial activities of debate and and decision-making.  Since  it’s just “folks” in Washington that are causing the problem, it might appear that you, your advisers and the Democrats in Congress are among the miscreants that need to be eliminated in the next election.  Right?
A closely related tick in Obama’s way of talking is one that the afflicts the speech of a great many people in politics, academics, and American professions.  This is the use of the foggy pronoun “we.”  Barack often says that “we need to…,” “we must…,” “we have the opportunity to…,” and phrases of a similar kind.  I confess that I sometimes use this lame phraseology myself .  When it’s called to my attention by puzzled friends, e.g., Michael Bennett (“Who’s the WE in the sentences you’ve been using, Langdon?”), I have two choices: (1) identify precisely who it is I’m talking about  or (2) admit that I don’t what the hell I’m talking about! 

Listening to Obama blather on about “we” this and “we” that is driving much of his devoted following in the 2008 election campaign (note that I didn’t say “us”) to utter distraction.   So please, Mr. President, explain who the “we” you keep mentioning actually are.   While it’s true that in a population of 311,800,000 or so it would be difficult to produce a full list of names and addresses of the relevant people and groups on short notice, a little more precision beyond the foggy, stupid “we” would strengthen your town hall comments.

While I’m at it, another compulsive tick that has entered the political lexicon recent years is the obsessive use of the term “middle class.”  No longer is it possible to speak of the nation’s “working  class,” “working people” or what used to be called “the working poor.”  Evidently, that large and (sadly) growing spectrum of the populace must either be counted as “the middle class” or simply erased from the social landscape.  Even Senator Bernie Sanders, proud American socialist of a certain kind, no longer mentions poor people or the working class in his public pronouncements.   My guess is that politicians are warned by their pollsters and handlers that voters, especially those wonderful “independents,” just don’t want to be reminded about the existence of nation’s lower socio-economic layers. It’s yet another way in which public figures are inoculated against a deadly virus that’s being going around recently, one that might be called “reality.”

We'll have this recession thing fixed in no time!

The day after I stood cheering with a million and a half people standing in the Mall at Obama's inauguration, I walked to Capitol Hill to visit an old friend, a staff person for a Congressional committee.  "What do you think of Obama's prospects?" I asked.

"I think he's got a lot going for him," the fellow replied, "but his economic team -- Geithner, Bernanke, and Summers -- is very bad news.  They're full of the worst kind of advice for getting the country out of the recession." 

And so it was and so it continues.  At the beginning of his presidency I wondered why Obama's inner circle did not include the likes of Robert Reich or Joseph Stiglitz.  The answer is obvious.  Their advice would have questioned plain vanilla neo-liberalism (aka free market conservatism) that the administration has followed so slavishly, right to the point of "double dip," lost decade or worse.

Here are some of Stiglitz's latest thoughts on our predicament.

"Throughout the crisis – and before it – Keynesian economists provided a coherent interpretation of events. Pre-crisis, America, and to a large extent the world economy, was sustained by a bubble. The breaking of the bubble has left a legacy of excess leverage and real estate. Consumption will therefore remain weak and austerity on both sides of the Atlantic now ensures the state will not fill the void. Given this, it is not surprising that companies are unwilling to invest – even those that can get access to capital.  
When the recession began there were many wise words about having learnt the lessons of both the Great Depression and Japan’s long malaise. Now we know we didn’t learn a thing. Our stimulus was too weak, too short and not well designed. The banks weren’t forced to return to lending. Our leaders tried papering over the economy’s weaknesses – perhaps out of fear that if we were honest about them, already fragile confidence would erode. But that was a gamble we have now lost. Now the scale of the problem is apparent, a new confidence has emerged: confidence that matters will get worse, whatever action we take. A long malaise now seems like the optimistic scenario."

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I'm not an economist or presidential adviser.  But I do talk with lots of college students and parents who still expect their will be good, high paying jobs at the end of the pipeline, especially the STEM pipeline: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- the golden pathway to ...?

What should I tell them now?

Beauty and elegance of New Deal post offices threatened by budget cuts

                                  Murals at  a New Deal era post office in Modesto, California

Cultural historian Gray Brechin, head of the Living New Deal Project, reports the selling off of some of America's most important public places -- hundreds of post offices built during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.  Brechin's article in the Guardian laments the auction and possible destruction of many of these lovely, useful buildings, casualties of the manic budget cutting so characteristic of the Obama/Tea Party/Republican era -- the new "Dying Rotten Deal" perhaps?  (My words not Brechin's)

Gray's evocative essay show the price we pay for losing an enduring connection to history, the public arts and civic culture as our co-called "leaders" stampede to comply with demands of today's barbarian oligarchs.

"Roosevelt shared with other New Dealers a considerably more expansive notion of what the US could achieve. He forecast that "one hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief." The New Dealers envisioned a new Renaissance. Its successors are knocking that legacy down to the highest bidder, and with it goes what we once were and might yet be."