Back in June ’08 I wrote a post answering notions of American “declinism.”
That seems long ago; and now, a few trillion dollars later …
America’s longtime sources of strength have been its spirit of individual enterprise and innovation, people motivated to work hard and try new things, confident in their ability to succeed and confound naysayers. This is propelled by America’s freedom and openness, as a meritocratic egalitarian society – egalitarian not in results but, rather, with every person standing on his or her own merits (not pedigree or privilege). Of course it’s imperfect, but these fundamental characteristics are in America’s DNA.
Now, however, a different strand has crept into our national DNA – the ethos of entitlement. It’s a recrudescence of the old world paradigm of entrenched privilege that America was founded to get away from. But in today’s USA, entrenched privilege is everywhere, exerted not by some elite oligarchy but by practically every segment of society.
We see this among young people, pampered and coddled, their self-esteem puffed up by well-meaning parents and teachers who raise kids’ safety and comfort to a veritable obsession. Nurtured in this entitlement cocoon, they understandably grow to worship themselves and their needs and wants, as though the world somehow owes it to them; woe to any who would deny them.
We see it too in attitudes toward the global economy. Many seem to believe that, even if Indian workers are just as educated, talented, and productive, American workers are nevertheless somehow entitled to continue being paid several times more.
And these crybaby whiners can’t seem to remember that we live today 100 times better than past generations; so if it goes to 98 or 99 that’s, like, the end of the world. As in the recent financial wobble, when retrenchment by a few percentage points was apocalyptically described as “collapse.”
The State of New York has entered a surreal zone where no entitlement will accede to the reality of empty governmental coffers. Newspapers and TV are flooded with pleas from interest groups all clamoring to preserve their place at the public teat as though nothing has changed. State employees just got a 4% raise, negotiated years earlier in flush times; the union will not hear of foregoing it. The state will just have to go deeper in hock. Next year’s budget gap promises to be yet more huge. No one will face it.
And of course, at the federal level, just when the writing is on the wall, writ large, of a looming financial black hole, still the trillions and even new entitlements flow out. George W. Bush’s prescription drug entitlement was already fiscal madness. Then Congress used the pretext of a recession to pillage the treasury with a “stimulus” bill. Then the health care bill, piling on yet more entitlements, more trillions (with a fig leaf of promises for future financial austerity that no one believes).
How will this tale end?
I label myself an optimist. The question is which force – which strand in America’s DNA – will prove the more powerful. Will it be our ancestral DNA of individual enterprise and drive – or the new mutant DNA of complacent entitlement?