Emily Olfson

A Younger Take on the State of the Union

Students from the United Nations International School in New York City gathered around a microphone Tuesday night to discuss their reactions to President Bush's State of the Union speech. Emily Olfson, 17, a senior editor with Children's PressLine, facilitated the discussion.

CPL: In the first part of Bush's speech, he discussed foreign policy. What were your impressions of this?

Nick Streithorst, 17: He and many of his colleagues, the neo-conservatives, are grounded in cold war ideology where they assume that, if you're a democracy, you're going to be on the United States' side. I think this is false and the recent election in Palestine is an example of this.

Isar Ramaswami, 17: I think there's this tendency to see things in very black-and-white terms. Democracy so far has been looked at as a positive without thinking about who it is that's being elected. Because even in a democracy, at the end of the day, there is someone being put in power, and you have to look at who that is and what power vacuum you're creating when you remove a dictator. That's obviously the problem that happened in Iraq. They put in democracy, but what after that?

Guillermo Farias, 17: Clearly democracy can result in regimes that are not U.S.-friendly. However, the U.S. fails to acknowledge that. What I would like to have seen is a more U.N.-friendly approach that would show that the U.S. is willing to work with the rest of the "free world" instead of just pursuing a very unilateral foreign policy.

Isar: He did make one very good point as to immigration, where he acknowledged that this country is very, very dependent on its immigrants, and in fact, the standard of living here couldn't possibly be as high as it is without the foreign workers who migrate here.

Guillermo: Yes, he at least took the first step in recognizing that the U.S. does benefit from immigration. It's truly other countries that lose a lot through immigration. I know Mexico does, that's where I'm from.

Isar: A lot of how the president justified his current foreign policy was through contrasting it with isolationism. But the specific role being played is what's in question. The fact that the U.S. will play a role in global politics is right now not up for debate. The question is what will that role be? Isolationism is, at this point, with how deeply embroiled the U.S. is in countries all around the world, not a practical option and therefore an easy one to refute, and he did so repeatedly.

Sumiran Das, 17: He dealt with economic aspect of isolationism versus direct foreign involvement in that he said that he was not going to set up protectionist barriers against foreign economies. In terms of that, he wanted American producers to be involved with Chinese and Indian producers, and be competitive and therefore lower their prices. I think that was a good step, but you have to ask the question: How is he gonna to do it?

Guillermo: The idea of economic protectionism has already been ruled out quite simply from an American point of view because they've always pursued a very sort of free trade-based economic policy. They have successfully implemented this for most of their neighbors, Latin America included. It's not until recently that Latin America has realized that this approach is not really working for a developing country. You can see this most clearly with Argentina's economic collapse and other Latin American countries that are starting to develop alternate policies to the Washington-based approach.

CPL: The second part of Bush's speech focused on domestic affairs, specifically on America's competitiveness with the rest of the world. What is your reaction to his comments?

Isar: I'm Indian, so I do find it interesting that Bush has decided to place us in the State of the Union Address. He acknowledged it as an issue that needs to be faced, but to place it as one of the nation's greatest problems I find very disheartening. For a long time, it's been really seen that the focus on engineering, mathematics and science in countries like India and China has created a high-powered group of people who are not educated purely in academics but in practical applications. Whereas here in the U.S. there's this focus on doing what one enjoys, which creates very, very brilliant people in fields like philosophy, and while that's a great benefit for individuals here, that is harming the economy as a whole. [In India] the field you go into is very much determined by how well you score rather than personal interest, and that is what's creating people who are very difficult to compete with. So the U.S. finally beginning that competition is an important step.

Sumiran: I disagree with Isar in terms of the level of commitment that the United States needs to make. The United States is already a developed economy, so it does not need as much incentive as India and China do because their economies are much less developed, plus their population is much bigger. So what you need here is more emphasis on math and science education, but I don't agree that it has to become so reactionary that you switch all your resources away from subjects like philosophy.

CPL: In terms of a competitive America, one of our large resources, George Bush said, was creativity and innovation. Do you agree with this?

Guillermo: A lot of scientists from other countries come to the U.S. simply because it is the place where the most research is going on and the country where they would have the most resource.

Nick: That's true but, I think what we should be focused on is that the people that come here to study also stay in America.

Isar: I know that Singapore, where I used to live, has a program where several of its top scholars will have fully paid scholarships to top universities in the U.S., paid for by the Singapore government all the way through a Ph.D., on the condition that, upon completion in this degree, they will return to Singapore and work for the Singapore government for a period no less than seven years.

Sumiran: I actually know one of the Singaporeans that are participating in this program. He is on scholarship now going to Cornell University. This guy is brilliant. About five years ago he used to tell me how he wanted to stay in the United States and work in the research institute over here, but his mindset has changed. He no longer thinks he needs to stay in the U.S. but can actually go back to Singapore and do the same level of research.

This is slightly getting off the topic, but I really wanted to talk about health care. The United States has a health care system that is unraveling, and Bush today talked about making the tax cuts permanent. The problem with that is, if you keep on subsidizing your health care provider, you're not making them cost-effective. How can a country like the U.S be competitive if its citizens do not have proper health care?

Nick: This is not something that either Bush or Republicans usually talks about. Whenever they do, they usually use it as an opportunity to talk more about privatization and this ridiculous belief that the free market will solve everything.

CPL: Why do you think the free market is a ridiculous solution?

Nick: I don't think putting everything into the free market is always the answer. The people who are in charge right now come from an ideology where they think that everything can be solved by market forces. That just isn't true. I think health care is an example that has to be a national service from the government.

Guillermo: I feel that this idea of the free market solving everything is one that was very much marketed to Latin America, and one that has been clearly betrayed.

Sumiran: I disagree with the both of you. I actually feel that the free market would be a good solution in this case for once. Why? Because what Bush is doing is subsidizing producers. He is taking away efficiency from the market and having a more government approach. If you keep on subsidizing health care producers, you're not making them cost-effective. What he needs to do is make them liable for having these huge costs so that cost would eventually go down and people can afford health care. This can only happen if they are subjected to the free market.

Isar: I disagree with that simply because the removal of the subsidies will cause the prices of health care to skyrocket, and right now the problem with health care is already a lack of funding, so removal of these subsidies would in my opinion crush what little effectiveness it now has.

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