This year’s State of the Union address was particularly painful for anyone who understands that human knowledge has its limits. Notions of central-planner grandeur were flowing, causing economist Friedrich Hayek’s famous bit from The Fatal Conceitto run repeatedly across my mind throughout the rest of the evening:
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.Thus, I have dedicated the rest of this post to my favorite lines from omniscient Obama’s speech, followed by some initial reactions. Here’s to hoping that I, too, shall one day have access to the Grand Cavern of Every American’s Momentary Preferences and Future Decisions.
1. “Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last -– an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”Manufacturing and energy? Nice picks! But why stop there as long as you’re picking? Also, how do you know that your fantastically cherry-picked, “blueprinted” economy will be “built to last.” Can any economy built by one arrogant grandmaster’s “blueprint” ever achieve this? What kind of everlasting hocus-pocus do you plan on manufacturing?
2. “Let’s pass an agenda that helps [start-ups and small businesses] succeed. Tear down regulations that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow. Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs.”Why are businesses that are “raising wages” better than those that might still be struggling to get off the ground or are in the process of stabilizing? Why should succeeding business be more incentivized toward success than struggling ones? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “good job,” and why should companies providing such jobs be shown favoritism? Who gets to pick the favorites and what are the criteria? (I smell a czar.)
3. “The new rules we passed restore what should be any financial system’s core purpose: Getting funding to entrepreneurs with the best ideas, and getting loans to responsible families who want to buy a home, or start a business, or send their kids to college.”Which entrepreneurs have the “best ideas” and which families are “responsible?” How does the federal government have any clue what customers in individual markets want, and why should that be its business? Isn’t this better left to organizations that specialize in risk-taking and market analysis, rather than the guy coloring unicorns all over the American imagination?
4. “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that –- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.”Of course we do! All we need to do is, like, double our workers in the most popular industries. (Don’t mind the “how,” because “we [obviously] know how to fix it.”) Is Little Jimmy content to live in Mommy’s basement until he’s 38 years old? There’s an app for that. But what if those industries aren’t going to have twice as many openings in, say, 5 years? What if a new industry is birthed right when Obama’s grand old plan finally gets passed? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know … we’ll just pump up the jams on the next crop of growing industries and it’ll all work itself out. The federal government isn’t just smart; it’s quick.
5. “We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.”Getting cocky now, eh? Don’t sweat it. It’s all you. But you probably shouldn’t use the word “bet” when you’re talking about using taxpayer money to, um, make bets. It kind of gives it away.
6. “Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.”How does the President know that twice as much work will exist in the next five years (or that it exists now)? Or are we talking about “shovel-ready” work-study jobs? Like “free” room service for the dorms? More research assistants for the newly funded Chair of Transgender Post-Colonial Literature? Or perhaps you’d prefer to help Librarian Betty pick her nose when her hands are full? Doesn’t really matter, does it? Double up!
7. “My administration will take every possible action to safely develop [natural gas]. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.”Let me get this straight: You are privy to endless knowledge about economic trends and the bazillions of individual decisions that take place in the lives of countless Americans during every second of every day, but you can’t even make an educated guess as to what chemicals the gas companies are using? Just ask those nice little fairies by your trusty ol’ wishing well. Or Google it.
8. “With only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy. A strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”Why does it have to be an “all-of-the-above” strategy, and how can we ever assume or claim that developing “every available source of American energy” will be “cheaper,” as glorious as Doc Brown’s garbage-munching concoction may be? If it were, why aren’t we seeing such sources surface without government “help”? Why aren’t those “new jobs” already here if the options are truly “cheaper” and “available” (or in any legitimate realm of the President’s control)? And if we’re so focused on energy as a mere means for “creating jobs,” why not jump start things by paying a bunch of people to run in hamster wheels all day long? Heck, it’s “available.”
9. “Here’s a proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”“Here’s a proposal.” Those small words that instill so much fear in my innermost parts. How does less energy use translate into more manufacturing? With a supposed $100 billion of extra cash in their pockets, won’t all those greedy employers just build more marble fountains in the lobby or invent more big bad machines? It’s the government that should be doing the investing and “job creation,” right? Or have you all of a sudden changed your mind?
10. “If you are a big bank or financial institution, you’re no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits.”…aaaaaaaaaand that sounds like something called “socialism.”