On Tuesday President Obama spoke in Dallas on the subject of the recent killings of five policemen. Many have commented that his remarks began in an appropriate and respectful (if overly self-referential) manner, but somewhere around the middle turned inappropriately toward using the tragedy for nakedly political purposes like advocating for more gun control and more money for failed government bureaucracies.
I'll try not to rehash points already made by others, but I do want to focus particularly on this one paragraph:
As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. (Applause.) We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. (Applause.) We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book . . . .
Put aside the question of the high inappropriateness of using this occasion for such advocacy. You are still left asking yourself, doesn't the President of the United States know that he himself was given vast resources by the people and charged with responsibility for using those resources to address and solve these problems that he lists? If there has been failure to solve (or even make progress as to) these problems, how does he come off taking no responsibility at all and instead blaming "society"?
Start with the statement where I know the underlying data in most detail: "As a society, . . . [w]e allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment." Who's the "we" there, pal? It sure isn't the American citizens and voters. I would say that the American citizens and voters have shown great, even unbelievable, generosity in approving, through their elected representatives, some $1 trillion per year of funding for government programs supposed to combat poverty. About two-thirds of the spending is done by the federal government, all of it under your direct control for the past seven and a half years. That's about $5 trillion of federal "anti-poverty" spending in the last 7+ years on your watch by federal bureaucracies answering to you. With any minimally competent allocation of these funds, that sum should have been far more than sufficient to eradicate poverty once and for all. But in fact, on your watch, poverty as measured by your own Census Bureau hasn't even gone down at all, not even by a little. And as the poverty rate has stayed about the same and the population has grown, the absolute number of people deemed "in poverty" has actually increased. Don't try to blame this on us. We put you in charge, and we gave you way more than enough money to do the job. What is your excuse?
In your 7+ years of running $5+ trillion of anti-poverty spending, what exactly have you done to use that vast amount of money effectively so that poverty didn't continue to "fester"? People who know anything about the federal "anti-poverty" programs know that they are intentionally structured so that so-called "poverty" will never go down. The articles at this site addressing this issue are almost too numerous to count; examples are here and here. As far as I can tell, you haven't spent one minute of your time, let alone one drop of your political capital, in your 7+ years seeking to restructure or re-allocate federal "anti-poverty" spending so that any of it would actually address the problem at hand. The truth is that you are only too happy to see poverty "fester" so that you can cynically use it as a tool for yourself and the federal bureaucracies for obtaining ever more money to spend on accomplishing nothing.
OK, all of that is bad enough. But then you would use the occasion of the death of five policemen to try to blame the American public or "society" for what is in fact one hundred percent your own personal failure? It's beyond disgusting.
Are any other of the statements in the quoted paragraph above any more hinged onto reality? "We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs." Huh? You sure wouldn't get that impression about "drug treatment programs" from reading the National Drug Control Budget from your Office of National Drug Control Policy. The budget shows federal spending for drug treatment programs at over $12 billion per year and growing by almost $1 billion per year in recent years. And the list of programs is endless: There's the Medicare & Medicaid-funded Substance Abuse and Treatment Services Program (over $6 billion right there!), the Substance Abuse Treatment for Veterans Program ($708 million!), the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program (another $1.5 billion!), the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment Program, the Treatment Research Program (another $707 million!), the Substance Use Disorders Treatment for Military Service Members/Families Program, the Drug Free Communities Program, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program, the Primary Care and Addiction Services Integration Program, the Homeless Assistance Grants Program, the Drug Courts Program, the Offender Re-entry Program/Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, the Bureau of Prisons Drug Treatment Efforts, and the Judiciary Treatment Efforts; and that's before we get to drug prevention programs like the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center, the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grants, the Education Prevention Efforts, the Prevention Research Program, the Drugged Driving Program; and I'm far from done, but isn't this enough? Can anyone even think of some kind of drug treatment or prevention program that the federal government is not funding? And then we can start in on the equally endless list of "mental health" programs that get annual funding from the feds: the Community Mental Health Services Block Grants, the Youth Violence Prevention Program, the Project Aware State Grants (new in 2014!), the Mental Health First Aid Program, the National Child Traumatic Stress Program, the Children & Family Program, the Consumer and Family Network Grants, Project LAUNCH, the Primary & Behavioral Healthcare Integration Program, the Suicide Prevention Program, the Homelessness Prevention Program, the Criminal & Juvenile Justice Programs, the Grants For Adult Trauma Screening & Brief Intervention Program, the Children's Mental Health Services Program, the PATH Homelessness Program, the Protection and Advocacy Program, the endless grants to the National Institutes of Health for research (over $2 billion per year right there!) -- and again, I am far from done.
Really, it could not be more insulting to the American people to suggest that somehow they have been less than exceedingly generous in funding "drug treatment and mental health programs." If somehow all of these dozens of programs are not succeeding, if they are disorganized and unfocused, if they are trying to do way too many things at once and succeeding at none of them, there is exactly one person to blame, and that is you, President Obama. That's what it means to have a unitary executive, as our Constitution provides. There's one guy, and he is accountable. If we elected you to do one thing, it was to spend our money effectively to accomplish the intended goals; and by your own admission you have completely failed in these areas. By what kind of hubris do you turn around and blame "society" for what is your own personal failure? "Society" was not in charge of running these programs. You were!
And then we have "As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools." OK, the federal government does not have principal responsibility for schools, so at least this one does not represent Obama blaming others for his own personal failure. Also, there could be some room to debate about the optimum level of school funding. Still, I find this statement almost as obnoxious as the previous two.
I say there might be some room to debate because at least some studies claim to show a positive relationship between school spending and educational results. But when you scratch the surface, you tend to find that those studies have been funded by the teachers unions and are highly suspect. For example, see this study from the Shanker Institute (Al Shanker was the long-time President of the United Federation of Teachers). Other studies, for example this one from the Heritage Foundation, show no such positive relationship between increased school spending and student achievement. Several things about school spending and student achievement are clearly true: First, inflation-adjusted per student school spending has been increasing for decades, without any measurable increases in overall student achievement. Second, many "blue model" jurisdictions that have dramatically increased their spending on K-12 education to levels far above national norms supposedly in order to improve student achievement have gotten no noticeable return on their investment in improved performance. Notable examples are New York City (over $20,000 per student annual expense!), D.C., and Baltimore. Third, many jurisdictions that rank toward the bottom in annual per student spending (e.g., Utah, Wisconsin) get some of the best results. So, President Obama, what is the level of per student spending that you advocate as the appropriate amount to "invest" in "decent schools"? Believe me, he will never say. He will continue to blame "society" for failure to achieve perfect results no matter how much is spent. It's just politics at its most cynical. And at a memorial service for dead police officers!
I suppose Obama thought that if he said these things at a memorial service for slain police officers, nobody would be uncouth enough to push back. So I guess I'm not in the running for the "couth" award.