Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Agreeing on Economic Opportunity?

Michael J. Gerson


February 15, 2013

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

During his recent State of the Union address, President Obama addressed a government in the middle of a fiscal crisis. Unless Congress and the president take action, across-the-board cuts—called a sequester—will take effect in March. This approach to deficit reduction sounds fair, but it really isn’t. In a sequester, cuts fall equally on wasteful bureaucracies and vital spending—things like food inspections, medical research and the provision of AIDS drugs.  By one estimate, 165,000 fewer people would receive AIDS treatment if the sequester is fully implemented. The human cost would be felt in many areas.  

The scriptures say that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, but this is not a good budgeting strategy. Across-the-board cuts are an abdication of moral choice and a failure to govern. 

Unfortunately, the State of the Union did not offer a new or realistic path beyond this confrontation. President Obama seemed more concerned with setting up blame than resolving the problem. And some Republicans seem prepared to accept the sequester, believing the cuts are worth the cost.     

There was also little forward movement on broader budget challenges. Both Democrats and Republicans affirm in theory that a grand bargain—involving tax reform that closes loopholes and entitlement reform that reduces long-term costs—is eventually necessary. Yet neither side seems inclined to take political risks to achieve that deal. And the State of the Union did nothing to change that destructive dynamic.  

But there is at least one issue that the president addressed that should provide some basis for agreement. Obama diagnosed an important national problem: stalled economic mobility for millions of Americans. And he set a goal: “to build new ladders of opportunity to the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.” 

This should be a common-ground national commitment. Both liberals and conservatives affirm the importance of equality of opportunity, a fluid society where work and aspiration can yield advancement.  And the president mentioned two areas of policy—better early childhood education and improved job training programs—that are promising and strategic. So far, we haven’t seen the details of these proposals, so it is hard to assess their seriousness and cost.  But Republicans should not dismiss them out of hand.

In the midst of so many other disagreements, the president and Congress need to preserve the possibility of progress, at least on some issues.  And this should be one of them: giving Americans the skills and values, the social capital they need to succeed.   

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”