That cancer is government dependency.
That’s the shocking, dismaying opening line in George Will’s latest column, “Mugging Our Descendants.” In that column, Will echoes a fear that many Americans feel: we are building a society that feels entitled, instead of responsible. A society that’s been raised to believe that it’s owed something, instead of a society whose members feel that they, themselves are responsible for finding ways to succeed in life. A society whose members have been trained to demand that they be given “stuff,” instead of pulling their own weight.
Will’s column is centered on a new booklet by Nicholas Eberstadt, a conservative-friendly economist. According to Eberstadt:
Beginning two decades after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, who would find today’s government unrecognizable, government became a geyser of entitlements. In 2010, government at all levels transferred more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services to recipients — $7,200 per individual, almost $29,000 per family of four. Before 1960, only in the Depression years of 1931 and 1935 did federal transfer payments exceed other federal expenditures. During most of FDR’s 12 presidential years, income transfers were a third or less of federal spending. But between 1960 and 2010, entitlements exploded from 28 percent to 66 percent of federal spending. By 2010, more than 34 percent of households were receiving means-tested benefits.
(All emphases, and items in brackets, are added).
Eberstadt and Will make clear that much of this entitlement spending exploded under Republican administrations. The blame is bipartisan here. Acknowledged.
George Will and many conservatives will acknowledge that the GOP lost its fiscal way in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Too many Republicans became too willing to spend too much money at the federal level. That’s one of the reasons fiscal hawks cooled on the GOP in 2006 and 2008—that cooling led to the GOP’s loss of power.
Well, now it’s 2012. The Tea Party and other fiscal hawks have reasserted themselves within the GOP. Longtime Republican legislators who seemed way too comfortable with big spending ways have been shown the door. E.g., Senators Bob Bennett of Utah, Richard Lugar of Indiana. Will sees no better example of the GOP’s resurgent focus on fiscal discipline, than Romney’s choice of a running mate:
Why, then, should we expect Romney to reverse Republican complicity [in big federal spending]? Because by embracing Paul Ryan, Romney embraced Ryan’s emphasis on the entitlement state’s moral as well as financial costs.
Paul Ryan was a bold choice for Vice President, because Paul Ryan is the GOP’s most outspoken fiscal hawk. (Next to Jeff Flake, that is). Ryan’s budget proposals made him a lightning rod for big spenders and entitlements enthusiasts. Yet, Romney picked him.
As the old saying goes, the first real “presidential” decision that a presidential candidate makes, is his choice for vice president. Your choice makes a statement. Romney had plenty of popular, experienced Republicans who would have been safer picks. Most notably—Senator Rob Portman, from the pivotal battleground state of Ohio. As George Will sees it, Romney’s decision to “go big” with Paul Ryan shows that Romney is willing to fight the cancer that’s consuming us—a metastasizing Culture of Dependency.
I’ve written about some of these before, but here are some examples of how the “gimme gimme” mindset is starting to sink into our cultural DNA.
Thousands of Americans fall for a scam that tells them that the federal government will help with their utility bills. “This sort of scam” writes National Review’s Jim Geraghty, “only works if there is a significant pool of people who find it completely plausible that the federal government, and this president, would pay their utility bill for them.”
Well, if people expect Washington to provide them free birth control, I’m not surprised to hear people asking for help with the electric bill, too.
“As evidence of the moral costs [of a growing entitlement mentality in our society], Eberstadt cites the fact that means-tested entitlement recipience has not merely been destigmatized, it has been celebrated as a basic civil right.”
Eberstadt goes on to chronicle the explosion in disability claims and payments. I take issue with Eberstadt here, because in the past disabled people didn’t get all the help they should have. People really do get hurt on the job, or lose their ability to perform fully in a modern economy. A caring society—as ours is—must account for that.
However, Eberstadt cites statistics that make it seem likely that way too many people have turned the government safety neck into a hammock:
One reason work now is neither a duty nor a necessity is the gaming — defrauding, really — of disability entitlements. In 1960, an average of 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments; in 2011, 8.6 million were — more than four times the number of people receiving basic welfare benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Nearly half of the 8.6 million were “disabled” because of “mood disorders” or ailments of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue.” It is, says Eberstadt, essentially impossible to disprove a person’s claim to be suffering from sad feelings or back pain.
“In 1960,” Eberstadt says, “roughly 134 Americans were engaged in gainful employment for every officially disabled worker; by December 2010 there were just over 16.” This, in spite of the fact that public health was much better, and automation and the growth of the service/information economy had made work less physically demanding. Eberstadt says collecting disability is an increasingly important American “profession”:
For every 100 industrial workers in December 2010, there were 73 “workers” receiving disability payments. Between January 2010 and December 2011, the U.S. economy created 1.73 million nonfarm jobs — but almost half as many (790,000) workers became disability recipients. This trend is not a Great Recession phenomenon: In the 15 years ending in December 2011, America added 8.8 million nonfarm private sector jobs — and 4.1 million workers on disability rolls.
Eberstadt says that, being on disability is much more socially acceptable than it was in past generations. That has led to a greater, and sadly growing, willingness to view working as something you don’t really have to do, if you don’t want to. He writes that “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are lower in America than in Europe,” and that more than a quarter of American men “do not consider themselves part of the workforce” anymore.
Again, I’m going to decline to completely adopt Eberstadt’s opinion here. The men I know who are out of work aren’t blase about it—they’re actively trying to get back to work. Having acknowledged that, it’s hard to look at all of Eberstadt’s data, plus the links above, and not worry that a growing number of Americans are more inclined to look for a hand out, instead of a way to stand on their own two feet.
Conservative economist Thomas Sowell reminds us of a very practical reason why politicians spend lots of money on government benefits: job security. Their jobs:
Helping those who have been struck by unforeseeable misfortunes is fundamentally different from making dependency a way of life.
Although the big word on the left is “compassion,” the big agenda on the left is dependency. The more people who are dependent on government handouts, the more votes the left can depend on for an ever-expanding welfare state.
Optimistic Republicans who say that widespread unemployment and record numbers of people on food stamps hurt President Obama’s reelection chances are overlooking the fact that people who are dependent on government are more likely to vote for politicians who are giving them handouts.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that, back during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He was reelected in a landslide after his first term, during which unemployment was in double digits every single month, and in some months was over 20 percent.
The time is long overdue for optimistic Republicans to understand what FDR understood long ago, and what Barack Obama clearly understands today. Dependency pays off in votes — unless somebody alerts the taxpayers who get stuck with the bill.
All this dependency not only saps our national will, it empties our treasury. Well, our treasury is already empty, and has been for some time. So, we’ve been running up the national debt to pay our current bills. Or, as George Will put it, we’ve been “plundering our descendants’ wealth to finance the demands of today’s entitlement mentality.”
Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t think democracies could last forever, because voters would eventually figure out “that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury.”
On November 6th, we can start putting a stop to the plundering. We can start turning back the “gimme gimme” mentality that has spread way too far throughout our society and culture. We can’t afford to think that way any longer, for more reasons besides money.
Michael Ramirez, political cartoonist extraordinare, pretty much sums it all up right here: