I have an audiobook copy of Barack ChangeHope Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and I just began listening to it this morning.
Pardon my cynicism, but something struck me from the very prologue. During Barack HopeChange Obama’s run for the Senate, he says, he toured around Illinois talking to people, and this is what they told him (from pages 5 & 6):
(W)hether I was meeting with two people or fifty, whether I was in one of the well-shaded, stately homes of the North Shore, a walk-up apartment on the West Side, or a farmhouse outside of Bloomington, whether people were friendly, indifferent, or occasionally hostile, I tried my best to keep my mouth shut and hear what they had to say. I listened to people talk about their jobs, their businesses, their local school; their anger at Bush and their anger at Democrats; their dogs, their back pain, their war service, and the things they remembered from childhood. Some had well developed theories to explain the loss of manufacturing jobs or the high cost of health care. Some recited what they had heard on Rush Limbaugh or NPR. But most of them were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke instead of what they saw before them: a plant closed, a promotion, a high heating bill, a parent in a nursing home, a child’s first step.
No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If anything, what struck me was just how modest people’s hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class. Most of them thought that anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage. They figured that people shouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy because they got sick. They believed that every child should have a genuinely good education – that it shouldn’t be just a bunch of talk – and that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren’t rich. They wanted to be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air, clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.
That was about it. It wasn’t much. And although they understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts – although they didn’t expect government to solve all their problems, and certainly didn’t like seeing their tax dollars wasted – they figured that government should help.
Now, on the surface this sounds marvelous. Look at the simple values that we as Americans all desire: A living wage. A good education. Health. Safety. Security.
And we don’t think government should solve all our problems!
Here’s HopeChange’s reaction to this subtle enlightenment:
I told them that they were right: government couldn’t solve all their problems. But with a slight change in priorities we could make sure every child had a decent shot at life and meet the challenges we faced as a nation. More often than not, folks would nod in agreement and ask how they could get involved. And by the time I was back on the road, with a map on the passenger’s seat, on my way to my next stop, I knew once again just why I’d gone into politics.
By George, he’s a politician! He’ll make government do as much as it CAN!
When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.
Let’s look at how well government has done so far:
“Anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage.” The current federal minimum wage is $5.85 per hour, or $12,168 per year based on a 40-hour work week. The federal poverty level for a single person household is $10,210. Ta-daaaa! Problem fixed! If you can get a job flipping burgers for 40 hours a week, you can live above the poverty line (unless you’re doing it in Hawaii.) For a three-person household the poverty level is $17,170, so at least two have to work, one at least part-time.
That problem would appear to be fixed, at least by government definition, would it not?
Oh, wait… What if there aren’t any jobs where you are? Why, should fixing that be the responsibility of government, too?
“People shouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy because they got sick.” That one’s a lot tougher. Illness and injury can take you out of the workforce, and if you’re not covered by insurance, or if the insurance you do have isn’t any good, then you’re pretty much up the creek unless you are bankrupt or close to it. Most minimum-wage jobs don’t have much in the way of benefits, and if you are long-term or permanently disabled the money will run out fast unless you’re Bill Gates.
This really, truly, deeply sucks, and if you want to know why big-“L” Libertarianism isn’t more popular, this is one very large reason. There is no explaining to someone why their child, parent, sibling or spouse has to suffer, why their insurance company won’t pay for medicines or procedures, why their life’s accumulation of wealth and property has to be used up, sold off or given away just so they can qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. “Life isn’t fair” isn’t any comfort at all.
But Medicare and Medicaid – as limited and restrictive as they are – took up $511 billion of the $1.412 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2006. That’s more than a third of the entire budget, and it’s expected to go higher. Much higher.
Individuals going bankrupt would appear to be the least cause of our angst. In fact, it would appear that our government’s attempts at “solving” one problem has led to one a few orders of magnitude larger.
“Every child should have a genuinely good education.” Well, we’re definitely failing at that (and I have an upcoming post – really! – on the topic). Jimmy National Malaise Carter created the Department of Education in 1979 with the specific intent of reversing the downward trend. It’s failed to live up to the task.
So we throw more money at it. Kinda like Medicare and Medicaid. As Dean Esmay once put it,
When a government agency screws up, it argues that it would have done a better job if only it had more money and power, and it often gets it.
But Barack No Child Left Behind Obama says “with a slight change in priorities we could make sure every child had a decent shot at life and meet the challenges we faced as a nation.” Wow. That’s great!
Specifically, what change, and in what priorities? ‘Cause I think it would be great if we could just make sure every child could read – something I don’t think we were all that far away from less than 100 years ago. Before the Federal government had its hands in everything.
“Those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren’t rich.” You know, I haven’t figured out just when it was that a college degree became an entitlement. Back when a high school diploma meant more than a student had a merely adequate attendance record, a college degree indicated that the bearer was somewhat extraordinary, not just the son or daughter of someone wealthy. Albert Einstein didn’t come from a rich family. Neither did Percy Julian. While most who graduated with a BS or a BA weren’t geniuses, college was difficult enough that expense wasn’t the only thing that kept people from attending.
But now, with degree programs in such disciplines as Women’s Studies and EcoSocial Design, pretty much anyone can get a sheepskin, and unless the degree is in something technical it may only mean that the holder is able to learn. Maybe.
What entitlement is next? Everybody should be able to get a Ph.D?
“Safe from criminals and terrorists.” That would be nice. How safe do you want to be? 100%? 99.4%? Shall we put CCTV cameras on every corner (and discover, as the Brits have done, that it doesn’t really help?) Should you completely farm out your protection to the State, where a 911 dispatcher might not give a s#!t about what happens to you? Or the cops? We were promised an additional 100,000 police officers under Bill Clinton’s administration, but that didn’t work out so well. Of course, under a ChangeHope administration, we will never be allowed to fail! And when we begin engaging in unconditional negotiations with our ideological opponents in Tehran, Pyongyang, Beirut, Damascus, and a luxuriously goat-skin upholstered cave in the mountains of Northern Waziristan, terrorism will become but an unpleasant memory!
“Clean air, clean water, and time with their kids.” We’ve actually done pretty well with the clean air and clean water thing, though with standard government “efficiency.” The Great Lakes are cleaner than they’ve been in the last 50 years, Los Angeles is no longer synonymous with killer smog, and acid rain is now a problem primarily in Europe and Asia. Of course, most of the heavy industrial manufacturing has moved primarily to Europe and Asia, but hey, our air and water are cleaner! And time with the kids? With one parent working 40 hours a week and the other part time, why can’t they spend time with the kids? Besides, the government will soon, I’m sure, be passing a new Family and Medical Leave act that forces businesses to pay their employees up to twelve weeks each year to spend time with their kids!
“When they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.” You know, before Social Security, that generally was the case, only family members did the caring and respecting. Now even with Social Security – $544 billion, or 38.5% of the federal 2006 budget – we’ve still got seniors who can’t afford dignity or respect. Of course they’re living, on average, fifteen years longer than was the median in 1940 when the first check went out (due in large part to our incredibly expensive, highly advanced health care system, Medicare and Medicaid).
So, in balance our government has managed to accomplish some good, but the question I have is “how much and at what cost?” Milton Friedman once wrote:
I want people to take thought about their condition and to recognize that the maintenance of a free society is a very difficult and complicated thing and it requires a self-denying ordinance of the most extreme kind. It requires a willingness to put up with temporary evils on the basis of the subtle and sophisticated understanding that if you step in to do something about them you not only may make them worse, you will spread your tentacles and get bad results elsewhere.
He also noted:
There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what they get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.
As Friedman noted, spending someone else’s money on somebody else is what government does. And the job Barack Utopia Obama is going for is to be the engineer in the locomotive that is our federal government.
The support for Obama comes largely from idealists who think that government is the mechanism for making the world a better place, and it will accomplish this end if only the right people are in charge. I have a quote for them from C.S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.
Hillary is looking less and less loathsome as time goes by…
As for me, I concur with the words of Louisiana attorney Ashton O’Dwyer, who stayed in his home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina plowed through. In the face of police officers and national guardsmen moving through his neighborhood disarming homeowners in the name of making them safe, he said “Treat me with benign neglect.” That is what I would prefer my government do.
Unfortunately, he and I are among the few who hold that position.