Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What Do You See: Pork or Steak

[With apologies to all my vegetarian friends, please forgive the overabundance of meaty metaphors in this piece.]

In the interest of trying to see all sides of current issues, I often will read The Bulletin on my train ride into the city. The Bulletin is an unabashedly conservative newspaper that openly critiques any opinion that isn’t staunchly pro-business, anti-abortion and politically conservative. For instance, last year regular columnist Herb Denenberg spent a page of ink every day, 5 days a week, blasting and criticizing Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and all the Democratic candidates. These days most of his criticism is reserved for Obama. In all fairness, Denenberg’s pieces don’t have the venom of an Ann Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh, but rather are usually thoughtful and measured. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to take him seriously when he has such an anti-Obama, anti-left-of-right-center fixation. I want to say, “Herb, get a life, man! Every once and a while, write about baseball or the coming of spring or your grand kids; give it a rest!” However, The Bulletin’s reader’s must like him, because he keeps spilling the ink, and they keep reading.

However, the other day, I had had enough, when I came upon an article in The Bulletin (not by Denenberg) entitled “Local Congressmen, Senators, Receiving Millions in Pork”. The article was reporting on an analysis conducted by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) regarding the recent spending bill passed by Congress. The critique of “pork” has been a standard line of the Republicans opposing the bill, on the grounds that it involves too much spending overall, and especially in areas deemed “nonessential" in these lean economic times. Since I had not analyzed the details of the bill, I went to see what CAGW considered “wasteful” and “pork.” I expected to find the usual candidates like research on the mating calls of Puerto Rican tree frogs, and grants given to obscure groups like the Asian Abacus Society. Instead, I found such “nonessential” items as scholarship funds for college students, grants for small businesses, environmental projects in local rivers, community-based violence prevention programs and alternative energy grants. In fact on the list of “pork” I saw nothing but items absolutely essential toward building a safe, clean, and prosperous future that will change the way we drive, heat, and otherwise use energy. As far as I could see it was not pork, but filet mignon.

I realize that pork is in the eye of the beholder but the article reminded me of the dramatic paradigm shift that Obama and company are trying to make in the way we think about the economy, education, the environment, and equity. For those who write for the The Bulletin,and those who agree with them, news flash: the trickledown economics, deregulation, and rapacious capitalism of the Reagan years is over. Bankers, CEOs and stockholders will have to earn their money just like everyone else, and probably will end up with a lot less than before. The economy is here to serve more than the wealthiest 5%, and no longer will policy assume that the wealthy and powerful will use their positions in socially responsible ways. Those who do will find themselves rewarded. Those who don’t will find that their party is over. Moreover, Obama is saying “investment” now will now be in the development of people, not in “capital”. While I don’t understand all the fine details of Obama’s approach,and I have questions about some of his actions (such as the continuous support of banks that don't lend money to folks, and companies that don't seem to be changing their wasteful ways), overall I get the big picture. Obama, like all politicians before him has said that the our country’s greatest resource is its people. The only difference is that he is actually putting our money where his mouth is. Likewise, he is not just talking about global warming, he is challenging us to take steps to do our part to slow its progress, and making us pay when we don't. He not only sees the value of education, he is supporting it with real dollars.

The problem for the Herb Dennebergs of the world is that they haven’t made the paradigm shift. They are looking at what is going on in Washington thru an old set of lenses. As a result they can’t tell a pork chop from a ribeye. Until they do, they will continue to be disappointed. Obama has said that his plan is risky, and indeed it is, but I admire his courage and support his effort to make the systems of this country work for all its citizens, and not just the privileged few. So, some folks will have to change their paradigm, or they are going to find themselves missing the train as it pulls out of the station to the future.

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