This is President Obama’s Economic Recovery

Primarily for Two Reasons the Former President Never, Ever Talks About: Legal Pot and Free Open Educational and Job-Training Resources

Photo Credit: The White House

Serving as a presidential appointee in the Obama administration was an enormous privilege. But it also could be pretty frustrating. One of the biggest frustrations was seeing President Obama routinely denied credit for many of his most significant accomplishments. In some cases, that happened because of the huge disinformation campaign waged against him by the likes of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. In other cases, including two I will focus on here, it happened because President Obama left big victories unclaimed.

But first, some background information. As every Obama administration insider knew, our mantra was to stay busy doing the right things and to let the politics take care of itself. In fact, I think pretty much every staff call we ever had with President Obama contained some version of the following advice: “Now, you worry about helping the people who need help and fixing what needs fixing, and you let me worry about the politics.” I know I heard that admonition at least a dozen times. President Obama’s consistent message to his troops was that over time credit for making the right calls would be properly apportioned. Our job was to do right by the American people and to build a strong foundation for a brighter future.

That’s why it’s so upsetting to hear President Trump shamelessly claim credit for our current economic recovery when, in reality, he had nothing to do with it. This is President Obama’s economic recovery, a product of policies he put in place. Two such policies stand out both because they are having such a powerful continuing positive impact on our economy and because you have never, not once, as far as I know, ever heard former President Obama claim credit for having enacted either one of them.

Illustration Credit: Jisc CCBY

Open Educational Resources, known as OER, are teaching and learning tools that reside in the public domain or which have been released with an intellectual property license that allows their free use and modification by others. Examples include open textbooks, open courses, and open learning simulation tools.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor, working in partnership with the Department of Education, and under the guidance of President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, changed federal contracting policy to require that learning materials produced with public grant funds be made freely available to the public at no cost. This action was completely unprecedented at the federal level. The Obama administration’s new policy was first enacted in a $2 billion federal job-training program based at community colleges. That reform quickly led to an avalanche of similar copycat “open” requirements at the federal, state and institutional levels that have since made it possible for virtually anyone, anywhere to learn almost anything, including practical income-boosting skills, if they have or can obtain access to the Internet. Millions have taken advantage of these opportunities, with that number growing every day.

As far as I know, no one has yet successfully measured the full real-world economic impact stemming from this sudden new reality, one where people can quickly gain additional education and upskill at little or no cost. But here is what we do know: most experts agree that the long recession that followed the 2008 crash was primarily a function of a lack of economic demand in the national and global economy. Put simply, after the crash there were not enough people with enough money or income to buy enough products and services to drive economic growth upward. That lack of demand translated into a stagnant, sluggish global economy.

We also know that each year of additional schooling increases personal earnings on average by up to 10 percent for boys and even more for girls, according to studies conducted by the World Bank and others. And finally, we know that as of 2010 the average level of educational attainment around the world was just 7.8 years. And then, suddenly, all that changed.

Thanks to free, open educational resources motivated learners around the world can now improve their language skills, learn new trades, and find customers and clients more easily. Open educational resources are making a big difference in the U.S., where it is now increasingly possible to earn an income-boosting Associate’s Degree from a community college without ever purchasing a commercial textbook. Thanks to President Obama’s investment in OER, learners here and around the world can also maintain free access to more of their learning materials indefinitely. Clearly, the multiplier effect of these investments in freely accessible educational and job-training opportunities is enormous. Multiply a 10 percent increase in earnings for each year of increased educational attainment by the millions of students who have benefited formally or informally (we know this from user logs) and then multiply that number by the increased purchasing power created, and you can see the planks of the stronger, new foundation for a growing global economy that President Obama’s policies built.

Remarkably (and I still scratch my head about this), when questioned about his tenure President Obama is more apt to talk about the positive role his policies played in saving the big Wall Street banks from collapse and preserving the U.S. financial system. But when it comes to what actually got the global economy growing again the numbers make it clear that investments in people were far more important than saving the banks, however necessary that might have been. President Obama’s groundbreaking investments in OER saved millions of people around the world from lives devoid of any real opportunities for educational advancement and continues to pay financial dividends, in terms of increased growth, that are much larger and more important than the regressive tax cuts President Trump secured for a handful of wealthy conglomerates. Thanks to President Obama, high-quality educational and job training opportunities are now more ubiquitously available and the global economy is growing again. The connection between those two facts is unassailable. And yet, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, I’ve never heard the former president mention this truly world-changing accomplishment in any public forum.

Photo Credit: U.S. News and World Report

President Obama also effectively ended the longstanding federal prohibition on marijuana, which was an economically and socially devastating public policy that caused enormous grief and suffering over many decades. Obama did this not with an attention-getting presidential decree but instead by quietly overseeing the distribution of a memo from his Justice Department that instructed prosecutors to look the other way when it came to marijuana prosecutions unless significant additional federal crimes were being committed. His policy positioned the states and federal government to save an estimated $20 billion dollars annually, savings that are already being pocketed by state and local governments everywhere from Alaska to Washington, D.C. The multiplier effect savings, including those generated by allowing breadwinners who may have smoked a joint to continue to support their families, probably can’t ever be fully calculated and is undoubtedly much, much higher.

In 2010, marijuana cases accounted for more than half of all drug arrests. As recently as 2016, more than 650,000 people continue to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses each year, mostly in states that still have marijuana prohibition on the books. Elsewhere, however, cannabis is already becoming a huge, thriving new industry, one that is projected to generate at least 250,000 new jobs by 2020, more new jobs than are expected to be generated by the entire U.S. manufacturing industry, according to a recent report in Forbes. Overall, the U.S. market for legal cannabis is now estimated at over $7 billion a year in the states that have legalized it, with additional growth of 17 percent expected annually, all of which is generating tax revenues in place of the previous costs. And that’s not counting what will happen when more states give up their marijuana-prohibition policies, as now seems certain to occur in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere.

It’s easy to guess why President Obama never mentions that his policies spurred the creation of a new American cannabis industry, one that will soon be bigger than manufacturing. As public figures, President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama have both been very clear about the high value they place on discipline, hard work, sobriety, staying in school, and getting as much education as possible. The Obamas want to be what they are: positive role models. In fact, I’d wager that President Obama would be delighted if his name and the word “marijuana” never appeared in the same sentence again. I can understand that. Unfortunately, though, Obama’s reluctance to discuss the issue has created a vacuum in the public’s understanding of the economic benefits generated by ending the federal prohibition on pot which, in turn, has allowed President Trump to claim credit for a national economic performance his policies have done nothing to create.

President Trump’s economic policies, by contrast, are grotesque. They are characterized by the multibillion-dollar tax amnesty Trump secured for a handful of super rich U.S.-based multinational conglomerates, which did nothing to help working families. Trump’s corporate tax giveaway went to firms that had deliberately hoarded their profits overseas for years while they waited for an administration corrupt enough to let them pocket that cash without having to pony up their fair share of taxes, money that would have been used to support the U.S. military, legal, investment and consumer protection systems that make American business success in global markets possible. What’s more, by ballooning the federal deficit, President Trump is creating an economy built to crash, one in which federal policy makers will have far less leeway to fund the stimulus that will be needed when the next inevitable downturn comes.

That’s why I wrote this piece. Former President Obama does not boast. That is an admirable quality. But it also means he never talks about the role his policies, and particularly his support of open education and halting the counterproductive federal prohibition on marijuana, played to set our country on the path toward the economic growth we are now enjoying. Since he won’t talk about this, maybe the rest of us should.

Hal Plotkin is a Senior Scholar at ISKME, in HMB, CA. Senior Advisor, U.S. Dept of Ed (2009-14) and Senior Open Policy Fellow, Creative Commons USA (2014-2017)

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