Author’s Note: Hi everybody! Welcome to a participatory diary. That’s right, participatory. I’m offering this up as an exercise for everyone to try. The original text is an explanation of the exercise and why I’m suggesting it, followed by a couple of examples. Then, it’s up to you to complete the diary. Add comments with your own examples and I’ll build out the diary with your content. Let’s see what the whole feels like when we make an attempt to respond to the State of the Union address together. When we make a conscious effort to dig into the principles we find buried in the speech and compare them to the principles we would like to live by, how aligned do they feel?

We’ve heard a lot of responses this week to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. What I find persistently frustrating with any US political speech the lack of unpacking the “capitalist”, “democratic” and “American Way” framework. Or rather, the lack of establishing the principles behind what is being said to see whether it’s fits with the principles and values that we hold.

I have not framed this diary as an “anti-capitalist” one. I am suggesting that regardless of how you feel about capitalism, you might find it useful to analyze what another capitalist is saying by setting aside the supposed common ground of capitalism and searching for what values are reflected in what is being said. Capitalism isn’t a value. It’s a type of economic system. When we identify as a capitalist, however, we probably attach a value system to that identity. What I’m wondering here is whether everyone attaches the same value system. Do you even know if the speaker has the same value system as you?

I am someone who gets frustrated when people try to make decisions or solve problems together without establishing their shared principles. “Capitalism” is not a principle. Principles are about values and beliefs. They are guides to how we behave, how we treat one another. You could claim to be a capitalist and believe that everyone has a right to food and shelter. You could claim to be a capitalist and believe that food and shelter are not rights, they must be “earned.” Those are mutually exclusive principles which two different people are claiming as part of the capitalist construct. If they simply greet each other as capitalists, it is possible for them to think they are aligned when they are not. This opens the door for misunderstanding, at best, and deception, manipulation and oppression, at worst.

Is that happening in this speech? The answer to that and the places where we feel it is happening may be different for each person. Hence, the participatory nature of this diary. What feels unaligned for me may feel aligned for you and vice versa. But, perhaps, we’ll find some common threads of values that we would like to see underpinning our governance and social life. Perhaps ….

Author’s suggestion: One way of assessing the values being presented might be by asking, “who does this serve?” When we’re living in a capitalist economy, that question is almost always equivalent to the “follow the money” rule of analysis. We may think we live in a democracy, but with capitalism, capital is king. To determine if a law, a goal, or a social norm feels like the right thing to do we always need to have clarity about how money flows with those choices. The people to whom the most money flows have a conflict of interest when it comes to those decisions. The only chance of stemming undue influence, and undermining the values we want to operating with, begins with knowing where those conflicts lie.

I’ll begin with some questions that came up for me right in the opening remarks. There is a transcript of the speech here.

Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.

An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.

An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.

A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history. A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford. A man took the bus home from the graveyard shift, bone-tired but dreaming big dreams for his son. And in tight-knit communities across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades, and give thanks for being home from a war that, after twelve long years, is finally coming to an end.

First, I’m sure it’s a rhetorical device, but why do these examples refer to a single case of each one? Wouldn’t it be more powerful to say, “Today, teachers across the country spent extra time with students who needed it.”? My sense is that we’re supposed to be able to relate to it personally if he refers to “a teacher” or “an entrepreneur.” But, as I read it, it feels a bit lonely. It also makes me wonder if these are rare occurrences rather than common ones.

More importantly, let’s look at this assertion:

lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.

Questioning this one assertion leads to a long series of questions relating to other things claimed in the speech. Everything is connected, after all. In my mind, it went like this:

What constitutes “highest rate”? Is it the highest percentage of children in the US who graduated? Is it just the highest number of graduates ever? Is it the highest percentage of students who attended their senior year and graduated? How many didn’t even make it to senior year? I can’t get a handle on what he’s claiming here, so I’m dubious about holding it as a measure of anything. I’ve tried to figure it out and, while I didn’t do extensive research, I didn’t find the information to explain the source of this figure.

I must admit, I was distracted along the way by a story in The Atlantic about high school education rates. In it was a reference to an Ed Week report. In that was a quote from a school district supervisor about why attention should be given to school dropouts:

“I’d like to think [attention to dropouts] comes from a surge of academic conscience, but every student that drops out is a capital loss … and every one brought back is a reclaimed revenue source,”

Why are students who leave school only getting attention because they are “reclaimed revenue sources”? I don’t desire educated people because I see them as a revenue source. I appreciate education because it gives people the power to have choices and make more informed choices. A good education gives them the training to analyze and discern, which makes for better people to live and make decisions with. When he refers to a person as a “revenue source”, the first thought in my head is “for whom?” If the revenue is strictly the student’s, why would anyone care about whether they were a capital loss? This is a person of influence, overseeing the education of 20,000 plus students and he believes the social pressure to address student dropouts is about a drive for their revenue. Who is seeing it that way? Did we, as Americans, agree to this as the underlying reason we’re educating people? Who’s benefitting from this revenue? Nothing in what he said reflects my value system. How about you?

I digress. Back to the SOTU.

What is the quality of education these record-breaking graduates are walking away with?

According to a report from the Program for International Student Assessment, covered by NPR, US students are dropping in their rankings of reading, math and science education when compared to other countries.

“In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,” reports . “In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009.”

In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed.

Yet, later in the speech he says:

After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.

If other countries are doing a better job of educating their young people, how can we be better prepared than them? I start wondering about employment and the opportunities our youth have to contribute. Then, I see reports on the “mal-employment” of our college graduates:

More than a third of recent college grads with jobs are working in positions that don’t require a degree.

Economists call that figure the “mal-employment” rate, and right now it tops 36% for college-educated workers under the age of 25, according to figures crunched by Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

When college grads are getting jobs in retail stores and at restaurants, they are taking the jobs traditionally filled by those without a college education. They are also permanently tracked with lower expectations.

Taking a job below your education level carries a high financial toll. The mal-employed earn up to 40% less per week than their peers, Sum found. That could make it harder for them to pay off their student loans, move into their own apartments and even get married.

It can also affect their earnings for decades, since they enter the wage ladder at a lower rung, said Carl Van Horn, founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

That doesn’t include those who are unemployed or those who seek full-time employment but have only found part-time employment.

The official unemployment rate for grads under age 25 was 7% in May, but that doesn’t reflect all those who are under-utilized in one way or another. Nearly 8% of grads are working part-time, but would like full-time positions. These workers aren’t counted in the mal-employment rate.

That’s another 15%. So, 51% of our college graduates are not working at the level one would expect from a college education. And there’s this kicker:

“Employers are taking college grads over high-school grads, but paying them high-school grad wages, he said.

So, tell me again how we’re supposed to be better positioned than any nation in the world when our education quality is lowering and our employers are not paying appropriate wage rates?

It seems to me that the ability to prosper and have the security of food, home and health is a key factor to the strength and resilience of a society. Yet, wealth disparity grows in the US.

In 2007, the top 10% wealthiest possessed 80% of all financial assets.

So much so that:

In 2013 wealth inequality in the U.S. was worse than in most developed countries other than Switzerland and Denmark.

So, how are we better-positioned than any other nation on Earth?

You can see how digging into assertions and the use of data leads to questions; how those questions lead to ones where we’re not simply asking about that which was said, we’re pointing out differences in values. My questions show that I am concerned with each person having the right to eat, have shelter and get healthcare. I am not concerned with whether owners of corporations or other wealthy people make more money. I don’t value people have power over other people. I don’t value extracting revenue out of another person. I value each person being empowered and everyone being valued.

It’s not just about capitalism or democracy or the American Way – terms which get conflated and loaded – it’s about figuring out our principles. Once we have principles as a guide, it would be a lot easier to make legislative and other social choices together. So, what parts of this speech evoke questions for you? And what values do your questions reflect?