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Live Chat: Robert Scheer on Obama’s State of the Union Address
Posted on Jan 28, 2011
Anderson: OK. Here’s a question from Persistence, who asks: “What role do you think the Business Roundtable plays in steering the President’s economic policy and overall agenda?”
Scheer: Well, I think they’re calling the shots—the Chamber of Commerce, increasingly; the Business Roundtable; the top Wall Street people. And I think this is what Obama got out of his Harvard education, frankly. I think he’s just too enamored with these people. You know, one of the contradictions I pointed out in my column was, here’s Obama saying, “We have to have a better-educated population. We have to have better test scores. We have to. …” You know—who are the people who got us in trouble? They’re the people with the great test scores. They’re the people who went to the most difficult colleges to get into. They’re the people who graduated with those MBAs from Harvard and Yale, and those law degrees from Harvard and Yale. They’re the ones who concocted these financial packages. They’re the ones who told us we had to have these over-the-counter derivatives and credit-default swaps, unregulated, the thing that Clinton signed off on. They’re the ones who for decades told us we should trust the markets and trust their mathematical formulas, and trust the new gimmicks they were designing. So it wasn’t the people in the community colleges who were struggling to master math, or in high schools who were struggling to master math, who got us into this mess. We got into this mess because of the best and the brightest, just like we’ve gotten into the worst wars we’ve experienced. You know, David Halberstam’s whole book on Vietnam, “The Best and the Brightest.”
And so the real problem here is not that we have a poorly educated population. The real problem is that people who are educated seem to be educated to be greedy. To be concerned about themselves, to be concerned about their careers above the interests of the ordinary Americans. Where do we teach ethics? Where is morality? Where is there concern for the ordinary person? Do they teach that at these elite schools? Do they care about that? Is that part of our education? And so I was astounded … you know, here’s Obama giving a speech at a time when so many Americans are suffering because of what the best and the brightest did to us, and their financial packages and their distortions and so forth, and yet, what, the problem is we don’t have high enough test scores?
Maybe the problem is that we’re testing for the wrong things, and we’re not asking questions about ethics and values, and we’re not teaching about values. I mean, I’d put back to some conservatives the question that used to be asked, “What would Jesus do?” Has anybody read Luke? Has anybody read the fable of the good Samaritan? Has anybody really thought about what our Christian, Hebraic, Muslim background is supposed to teach in terms of values and concern for the vulnerable? Has anybody read what’s said about usury and taking advantage of people, particularly impoverished people? So maybe the problem is in the schools we’ve lost touch with our basic values. Whether there were secular values that we used to have, going back to the deons, or religious values, there doesn’t seem to be any concern. And so here you can appoint the head of GE, who paid himself during the worst year of the economic downturn—when his company was going to go belly-up if the taxpayers didn’t save them—and he paid himself $14 million, and we turn to him to help us out now? He’s an admirable person and the president appoints him to this key position? I don’t get it. I mean, certainly these people can test well, and they go to the best schools, but where are their values?
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Scheer: No, I have always felt that … first of all, I teach a class in ethics. But, you know, I’ve always felt that important discussions have taken place within the framework of religion. There’s no question, in every society. And whatever your view of revealed truth, or a deity, or so forth, it’d be silly to ignore not only religious traditions but philosophical ones. I mean, go back to Confucius, you know. Confucius says a doctor … it’s not enough that a doctor be a good doctor, but if the doctor is greedy and only interested in making money, then that’s not admirable. That’s not ethical. The doctor has to be concerned about the society, about the patients and so forth. That’s Confucius, what, 400 … four centuries before Aristotle. Aristotle makes the same point about concern for the larger interests of the city-state and the well-being. Then you get, if you look at Hebraic tradition, concern for your community, you don’t charge people, certainly in your own tribe, but even … your neighbor. And the reason the good Samaritan parable is so important is the definition of the neighbor has extended. It’s somebody you might have hated, but you see at the side of the road, and they’ve been beaten, robbed, naked, and no—you put them on the donkey and you take them to the inn, and you pay for their well-being.
So concern for the others is supposed to be built into all of our major philosophical and religious traditions, including Luke. Whether you think it’s revealed truth or not, the fact is it’s an important reference to consider ethical questions. And I just wonder whether any of that goes on in our law schools and our business schools, because these people act in the most self-centered, unprincipled, immoral way. And that’s really the story of this meltdown. And there’s a report issued today, Thursday, which people should read which says no, this was not, as Obama tried to suggest in his speech, the normal problems we’re having in a competitive world of training people so we’re … no! This was a scam. This was a rip-off of the American people that didn’t happen because these Wall Street interests controlled the government process, they controlled the regulatory agencies, and they were able to make what should have been illegal, legal. And we’re still paying the price.
Anderson: OK, I think we have time for maybe one more question. And this comes from Chris Rushlau, who asks: “So politically speaking, what is holding this presidency up? What is its base?”
Scheer: Well, what’s holding this presidency up is opportunism. Obama is a great salesman. And so was Bill Clinton, for that matter. The problem with George W. Bush, you know, he wasn’t very good at selling himself. He had the war, though; without the war and the appeal to a pseudo-patriotism, George W. Bush would have been a one-term president. The first president Bush, and Jimmy Carter, were not as good at selling themselves, and that’s why they were one-term presidents. Ronald Reagan, obviously, was a very good salesman. Obama may be the best salesman we’ve ever had. I mean, how a guy with a funny-sounding name, and our first, you know, non-white-male president is so effective … you have to say in part, yes, he’s obviously brilliant. He’s obviously very sharp. And he’s very … he’s charming. And what he’s doing now, though, is the mainstay of opportunism. He’s … if you look at the speech, I forget the phrase I used, I called it … you probably remember, Kasia, because you edited it. …
Anderson: I remember everything that you write.
Anderson: Platitudinous hogwash!
Scheer: Platitudinous hogwash. It was a collection of platitudes. It was like, “Hey, give me everybody’s Christmas wish list.” You know? “Let’s have a faster Internet. Let’s have cleaner air. Let’s have more solar. Let’s have more jobs, let’s have more competitiveness, let’s have more investment. …OK, let’s have a sentence here about better-educated students listening to their parents.” I almost thought we were going to have an appeal to eat spinach. You know, balance your food, go get your eyes checked frequently. I mean, I don’t know what. You know, it was like a list of all obviously good things to do. Yes, we should all work harder, we should all study harder, we should all learn more, we should all have a good attitude, we should all reach out to our neighbors, and so forth and so on. But those are platitudes.
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