Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
This year, Hollywood hit award pay dirt for political dramas inspired by American history. Unlike “The Avengers” -- the top-grossing super-hero movie -- best picture nominees “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” featured authentic, determined and courageous Americans who endured adversity and mortal danger to overcome morally inferior antagonists.
Though we’re living through the umpteenth act of a gory political spectacle involving the US budget, Think Again if you expect that Quentin Tarantino will adapt it for the silver screen. Devoid of heroes or valiant rescues, the drama serially unfolding in Washington isn’t even telenovela-worthy, particularly the latest installment known as the “sequester.”
The terrifying story-line echoed by media actors playing supporting roles -- draconian spending cuts will trigger airport delays, prisoner releases, uninspected food, heightened risk of terrorist attacks, and Armageddon – is intended to evoke fear and dread, transforming Americans into “Les Miserables.” Taking Harry Truman’s cue, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them,” leading actors willfully neglect to mention that in their parlance, a “cut” means a smaller increase. Hence, the last time federal spending declined, Marlon Brando and “On the Waterfront” won Oscars.
As Bob Woodward of “All The President’s Men” fame confirmed, the White House proposed the “sequester” in 2011 during debt-ceiling negotiations in return for raising the limit from $14.3 to $16.3 trillion. Designed as a “doomsday mechanism” to extract $1.2 trillion from the trajectory of spending growth over the next decade (during which we’re projected to spend $47 trillion), President Obama signed the sequester law in August 2011.
Despite having 18 months to “go line-by-line through the budget,” as Obama frequently promised, and in excess of $120 billion of annual government waste identified by the Government Accountability Office, no agreement was struck to avert this year’s $85 billion in discretionary spending reductions – split equally between defense and domestic programs -- and a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers. Now, the sky is falling.
ABC White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl chided the hysterics in his column, “Devastating Sequester Spending Cuts? Give Me a Break!” He wrote, “the automatic spending cuts set to go into effect on March 1 will cause some real pain and many economists believe they would hurt the economy. But all the dire warnings give the impression the cuts are much larger than they actually are.”
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the much-maligned sequester merely slows by 2.4 percent the growth of annual federal spending, which climbs by $2.4 trillion (instead of $2.5 trillion) to $5.9 trillion in 2023. Even after the sequester, the federal government will spend $15 billion more this year than last year and 30 percent more than in 2007. Additionally, after including tax increases agreed to in the “fiscal cliff” deal, the Budget Office projects an $845 billion deficit this year and an $8 trillion accumulated deficit through 2023, by which time national debt will be $26.1 trillion.
Since Americans live in the world’s largest and strongest economy, we’ve tolerated government excess, even agreeing with Will Rogers who said, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” But after hurtling through successive manufactured crises, Americans empathize with Rogers who observed, “Last year we said ‘Things can’t go on like this’, and they didn’t, they got worse.”
That’s because, unlike Americans who are accustomed to making hard choices with “True Grit,” the federal government has operated without a budget since before “Hurt Locker” won best picture. Obama’s last two deficit-laden budgets won zero votes in Congress and the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in four years. Consequently, the default budget process assumes ever-increasing spending levels, “From Here to Eternity.”
But avoiding tough decisions means its easier to criticize others who do, like the House which has passed budgets incorporating reforms Obama once promised and his deficit commission recommended, as well as bills to rationally allocate the sequester’s crude cuts.
Seemingly willing to cause Americans to fear more than “fear itself,” the President is traveling the country – at great expense – to campaign against the sequester he proposed, painting rivals as “Inglourious Basterds”. Wouldn’t the national interest be better-served were Obama to propose priority-driven cuts? Why doesn’t he take a cue from Reagan and Clinton and pursue bi-partisan tax and entitlement reforms to boost the economy, address unsustainable growth in mandatory expenditures and secure vital discretionary programs?
After instituting similar reforms, Sweden achieved a remarkable economic turnaround following the 2008 financial crisis, and so can we. But we’ll need leaders who embody Steven Covey’s “habits of highly effective people” including: accept responsibility for one’s decisions, build cooperative relationships with rivals, take the blame and give the credit. Essentially, the “Silver Linings Playbook” for America requires leaders who are committed to win-win solutions, not merely winning.
Think Again – such a command performance would be a “hot ticket.”
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage,” goes the rhyme. Unfortunately, in large swaths of American society, this rhyme is playing in reverse, with dire consequences for lower-income Americans.
Given five decades of deteriorating marriage trends, it appears Americans concur with H.L. Menken who joked, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who’d want to live in an institution?” Since 1960, the percentage of married Americans plunged from 72 percent to 51 percent last year, a record low. Meanwhile, babies born to unwed mothers skyrocketed from 4 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2011, another ominous record considering out-of-wedlock children are 82 percent more likely to suffer poverty and other social ills.
However, Think Again before assuming Americans, like Menken, believe “The longest sentence you can form with two words is ‘I do’.”
A 2010 Pew Research/Time Magazine survey concluded that the institution of marriage “remains revered and desired.” Though marriage isn’t “as necessary as it used to be,” the study reveals: married people are significantly happier with their family lives; seven-in-ten 18 to 29-year olds want to marry; and 77 percent of Americans believe marriage makes raising a family easier, which remains a “very important” reason to marry. If marriage is so revered, why aren’t more Americans marrying and having in-wedlock children?
The Pew study confirms what Charles Murray chronicles in his best-selling book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” American society is becoming as socially stratified as the vintage English world of “Downton Abbey.” Whereas in 1960, Americans shared bedrock moral values, behaviors and even neighborhoods, irrespective of class and education, today we’re separated into cultural and income enclaves with profoundly differing values and practices — upper-class “Belmont” neighborhoods where college-educated white-collar elites reside, and “Fishtown” where less-educated working-classes live.
“It’s not the existence of classes that is new,” Murray contends, “but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values.” As Fishtown’s civil society atrophied, its residents suffered joblessness, family instability, poverty, government-dependency, crime and unhappiness. Meanwhile, cocooned Belmonters work, invest, marry, raise children, volunteer in the community, practice a religion – they prosper. To recover, Fishtown needs a civic Great Awakening to revive America’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.
More marriage and family formation is also needed to counter another grave challenge – declining fertility. After decades of deteriorating demographic trends, America needs more babies, asserts Jonathan Last in his new book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.” Since low birthrates are infectious, “there’s no precedent in recorded history of societies experiencing long-term peace and prosperity in the face of declining fertility and shrinking population.”
Low fertility and aging societies are less entrepreneurial, economically dynamic, and secure because risk-averse older people seek to preserve -- not invest -- capital; a shrinking base of workers must support ever-growing retiree expenditures; when older majorities disallow entitlement cuts requiring tax increases on the younger, it makes having babies (future taxpayers) less affordable; entitlements crowd out defense spending.
Notwithstanding the explosion of out-of-wedlock babies in Fishtown, America hasn’t sustained a fertility rate above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since the 1960s. In 2011, it hit a record low 1.93. Consequently, America’s median age rose from 29.5 in 1960 to 37 today. Meanwhile, the ratio of workers to retirees shrank from 40 in 1946 to 2.9 today.
Though foreboding, America’s prospects are better than the rapidly aging nations of East Asia and Europe where decades of sub-replacement fertility rates are causing dramatic population contractions. Ironically, fertility decline was already a global phenomenon in 1968 when “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich predicted overpopulation would trigger imminent mass starvation.
Today, 97 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with declining fertility. To avert “turning into a decaying nation,” and facing a 1.3 fertility rate and devastating population declines, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the trio Boys II Men to romance Russians into Valentine’s Day baby making.
In Japan -- where the fertility rate has been sub-1.5 since 1995 -- more adult diapers than baby diapers are sold and the economy has been stagnant for decades. With a median age of 45 and 2.6 workers per retiree (falling to 1.2 by 2050), spending on the elderly has exploded Japan’s debt-to-GDP to 229 percent. Last month, Japan’s new Finance Minister made headlines when he told a social security reform committee that the elderly should “hurry up and die.”
To avoid these economic and societal death rattles, America needs more marriages and babies – in that order. With an “ideal fertility rate” of 2.5 (according to Gallup), Americans actually want more babies, and as the Pitt/Jolie children attest, kids prefer married parents.
Think Again -- Wouldn’t it be wonderful to renew these commitments on Valentine’s Day?
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Considered a cancer surviving “badass on a bike,” it turns out Lance Armstrong is just a badass -- and a fraud.
Armstrong’s admission that he doped his way to seven Tour de France titles even prompted CBS News CEO Jeffrey Fager to Think Again about his network’s role in the “Miracle Man’s” narrative. “We helped create the myth,” he acknowledged, because “we wanted to believe this absolutely inspirational story. But we were duped.”
Unearned moral superiority and blazing self-righteousness hastened Armstrong’s rise, as he slandered and sued whistleblowers into submission. “I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative,” the master-manipulator told Oprah, “and if I didn’t like what someone said, I turned on them.” Hence, the narrative (not the truth) is the message, to paraphrase media maven Marshall McLuhan.
Consider how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struggled to control her narrative during last week’s congressional hearings on the Benghazi terrorist attacks that claimed four American lives, including the first US ambassador murdered since 1979. To deflect responsibility and shape public opinion, Clinton hollered self-righteously, “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
But if the deaths were caused by a premeditated attack launched on the anniversary of 9/11 by anti-American Islamic terrorists – not a protest turned violent over a YouTube video, as originally asserted by US officials including President Obama – shouldn’t that inform how we prevent future American deaths from terrorist attacks? Isn’t it misleading to suggest anything other than the facts?
President Obama worked hard to promote the narrative that he’s determined to resolve America’s mounting fiscal threats and cut his predecesor's record $459 billion deficit. In February 2009 -- just days after signing his $833 billion economic stimulus bill -- he convened a fiscal responsibility summit at which he pledged, “to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term.” He acknowledged, “It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we’ve long neglected.”
In 2010, to demonstrate that his commitment to “deal with these broad structural deficits” wasn’t “just an empty promise,” Obama appointed the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles commission. It responded to his appeal for “tough choices” by recommending tax and entitlement reforms similar to those enacted by Canada before its remarkable economic and fiscal turnaround.
But instead of pursuing reforms, Obama campaigned for Clinton-era tax-rates on the wealthiest Americans -- though not Clinton-era spending levels, which averaged 19.8 percent of US GDP compared to Obama’s 24.4 percent average – securing in the “fiscal cliff” deal a tax-rate increase from 35 percent to 39.6 percent on incomes over $400,000.
Economic realities are overtaking Obama’s “Fiscally Responsible” narrative: the economy surprisingly contracted last quarter; US debt ($16.4 trillion and growing nearly $4 billion every day) exceeds the size of the US economy; Medicare and Social Security actuaries say underfunding of the programs exceeds $60 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office projected a fifth consecutive trillion-dollar deficit this year.
Absent rapid economic growth to bring debt-to-GDP levels down to manageable norms, Americans aren’t confident in a future that holds only unacceptable alternatives – massive middle-class tax increases and/or rapid inflation. Yet when Republicans urge enactment of reforms Obama once promised and his fiscal commission recommended, he calls them heartless and “out of the mainstream” and questions their morality by suggesting they “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Yesterday he blamed them for the US economic contraction.
As Obama discards his “fiscal prudence” narrative in favor of a “benign government” narrative, consider that our bloated government sector is not only crushing the private economy, it’s handicapping Americans’ opportunity to earn the success from which achievement and happiness derive. Obama may favor “collective action,” but it’s the freedom to determine one’s life “profit,” however defined, that our Founders meant by “the pursuit of happiness” -- America’s moral promise.
Americans are aspirational and self-reliant, so it’s heart-wrenching to note that after spending $15 trillion in the “War on Poverty,” America’s poverty rate hasn’t budged, the number of Americans dependent on government checks is at a record high, and the percentage of Americans in the work force is near a record low.
Rather than denigrate policymakers who want to reverse these trends by reverting to our Founders’ limited government design, President Obama should summon the magnanimity to collaborate. It’s how our best presidents have served the national interest – by promoting unifying narratives, not divisive ones.
At the Civil War’s end, President Lincoln (whose pro-slavery opponents indeed were morally inferior) proclaimed, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Think Again – history rewards “unifiers” like Lincoln, not self-righteous bullies like Lance Armstrong.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
During the Civil War when the union’s preservation and slavery’s abolition were in doubt, President Lincoln roused the nation with his dream “of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” In rekindling our Founders’ vision, Lincoln helped assure that America would become the freest and most prosperous nation on earth, a status successive US presidents have dutifully maintained, or they were cast aside by voters.
As Americans Think Again about President Obama, consider that no president has won re-election amid such economic stagnation, declining incomes, high gas prices and business pessimism. Living astonishingly beyond our means and more indebted than any other nation in world history, Americans face a reduced standard of living, diminished opportunities for our children, and a weakened capacity to secure our national interests in a menacing world.
After trillions in fiscal and monetary stimulus, the 39-month old economic recovery has one-seventh the GDP growth rate of the Reagan recovery in which double-digit inflation and interest rates were also slain. With 261,000 fewer jobs today than January 2009 (despite population growth of 9 million), exploding poverty, government dependency, and income inequality imperil Lincoln’s dream.
During the economic turmoil of 2008, Obama sounded Lincoln-esque, promising to “provide good jobs to the jobless…secure our nation and restore our image as the last best hope on Earth.” But unlike Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton who understood the benefits of economic growth policies – more and better jobs, larger paychecks, growing tax revenues without tax rate increases, and deficit and debt mitigation -- Obama doubled down on government-centric and budget-busting policies.
Having inherited a government moving in the wrong direction on bailouts, spending, deficits and debt accumulation, Obama floored the gas. Though critical of Bush’s $4 trillion in accumulated debt and vowing to halve the annual deficit by now, Obama has run four successive trillion-dollar deficits – each nearly triple Bush’s average -- while increasing debt nearly $6 trillion to a sum ($16.1 trillion) that exceeds the US economy. Historically, America’s economy has grown faster than its debt -- until Obama, under whom debt is growing $2.50 for every dollar of GDP growth.
With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, manditory expenditures for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are exploding, consuming more annually than the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and TARP bailouts. Rather than address the looming entitlement crisis, Obama’s budget projects massive deficits and $20 trillion in debt by the end of his second term. So fiscally irresponsible, not one member of Congress -- not even a single Democrat -- has voted to approve either of Obama’s last two annual budgets.
Meanwhile, with Democrats in complete control of Congress through January 2011, Obama’s signature legislative “reforms” – Obamacare and Dodd-Frank – ignored Republican solutions, and imposed thousands of complex regulations and new taxes on the private economy, nearly paralyzing job creation and economic growth.
Though sold as “Wall Street reform”, Dodd-Frank makes bailouts more likely by designating selected banks “too-big-to-fail” and failing to reform the financial crisis’ real culprits -- housing-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. With smaller banks competitively disadvantaged, lending is down, consumer prices are up, and expensive consultants, like the former chiefs-of-staff to both Dodd and Frank, are in demand.
Neither is Obamacare meeting its promises. Insurance premiums are up $2,500 and according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Obamacare will cost nearly twice its original estimate, leave 30 million Americans uninsured, and cause 20 million people to lose their employer-provided health insurance. Additionally, it imposes 20 new taxes on families and small businesses and incentivizes employers to hire part-time instead of full-time workers.
Thanks to recent technological breakthroughs, America is now the most energy-endowed nation in the world. Allowing the responsible development of our resources would generate millions of jobs while turbo-charging the economy and revitalizing distressed communities. Yet despite promising an “all-of-the-above” energy policy while investing $90 billion in uncompetitive green energy companies, Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline and reduced drilling permits on public lands by 36 percent, compared to increases of 116 and 58 percent under Bush and Clinton, respectively.
Meanwhile, GDP growth slumped to 1.3 percent in the second quarter, but Obama proposes to increase tax rates on “millionaires and billionaires” (individuals and small businesses making over $250,000) to promote fairness, after opposing them in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate. But how can it be fair to implement a policy that the CBO considers economically injurious and would yield only enough revenue to fund 8.5 days of government spending? Given Obama’s track record, how could another four years of the same policies result in enough economic growth to overcome our economic challenges?
Mindful of these challenges and eager to diffuse the debt bomb while preserving entitlement programs for future generations, Governor Romney proposes to expand the private economy with spending, regulatory, tax and entitlement reforms reminiscent of those enacted by Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton – modern America’s most successful economic stewards. Romney proposes to cut tax rates by 20 percent for all Americans while maintaining the same share of taxes paid by the wealthy. But unlike Bush, he’ll pay for them by eliminating expensive loopholes only accessible to wealthy individuals and companies like GE.
Divided as we were during the Civil War, Americans long to be unified by a leader, like Lincoln, committed to expanding liberty and increasing individual opportunity -- the source of human flourishing and America’s promise.
Think Again – only by restoring these cultural bulwarks can we pass our children a strong America, and remain the last best hope of earth.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Beyond the realm of inconvenient truths, there’s a dimension to which Bill Clinton occasionally retreats. It’s a dimension of fertile imaginations, sound bites and mind games whose boundaries the gullible determine. In this wondrous land, tokes aren’t inhaled, sex with interns isn’t sex, and the meaning of “is” isn’t always is. When Clinton wags his finger to punctuate a claim, like “no president – not me or any of my predecessors -- could have repaired all the damage in just four years,” it’s his poker “tell.” Next stop: the Twilight Zone.
Ironically, the president who rode to victory in 1992 on the theme “it’s the economy, stupid,” now suggests it’s stupid to examine the 39-month old economic recovery which, we were promised, would yield 4 percent gross-domestic-product growth and 5.6 percent unemployment -- not the current 1.6 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively. Before crossing over to the land of suspended disbelief, Think Again.
In fact, until now, all presidents over the last 75 years have performed better. As Milton Friedman observed, and a November 2011 Federal Reserve study verified, the worse the recession – even when caused by a financial crisis -- the stronger the recovery, absent bad government policies like those that prolonged and deepened the Great Depression.
Despite record levels of stimulation that exploded government spending to 25 percent of GDP (up from a 60-year 18 percent average) and four consecutive years of trillion-dollar deficits, an Associated Press study concluded “that by just about any measure”…this is “the feeblest economic recovery since the Great Depression. More than any other …people who have jobs are hurting: Their paychecks have fallen behind inflation.” Consequently, income inequality has materially worsened and, as Vice President Biden noted last week, “the middle class has been buried the last four years.”
The annals of post World War II economic recoveries show Biden is right. Never before have Americans suffered such poor prospects nor sought such refuge in safety net programs. When counting the millions of discouraged Americans no longer in the labor force, true unemployment is 14.7 percent. Meanwhile median household income has dropped nearly 5 percent, amidst exploding gas and food prices. Not surprisingly, a record number of Americans now claim federal disability checks and food stamps, up nearly 20 and 44 percent, respectively.
President Reagan inherited the other “worst” post WW II recession and, unlike the most recent, had to contend with double-digit inflation and interest rates, in addition to double-digit unemployment. By this point in his presidency, Reagan’s pro-growth policies had unleashed the economy, resulting in 7.1 percent unemployment, rising median incomes and 11 percent GDP growth.
Most importantly, Reagan’s work with Democratic house leader Tip O’Neill to implement historic tax, social security and immigration reforms -- and Clinton’s collaboration with Republican house leader Newt Gingrich to reduce government spending, lower taxes on investment, implement “consensus deregulation,” and reform welfare -- fueled the greatest economic boom in world history from 1982 to 2007. As business investment grew, so did the job market and the number of Americans paying taxes, confirming what President Kennedy said “is a paradoxical truth that…the soundest way to raise [tax] revenues in the long run is to cut [tax] rates now.”
If the current “recovery” had merely performed as well as the average of all post-World War II recoveries, current US GDP would be $1.2 trillion larger and 7.9 million more Americans would have jobs. Americans have been denied this prosperity because of unprecedented levels of government spending, job-killing regulation, and crony capitalism – partisan policies which large majorities of business leaders in two recent surveys (Business Roundtable and National Federation of Independent Business) say hurt them.
That 55 percent of small business owners surveyed wouldn’t start their business today reflects a lack of confidence in the economy’s future, imperiled as it is by $16 trillion in debt (up 50 percent since January 2009), a sum larger than the US economy. When interest rates increase from historic lows, larger interest payments will necessitate draconian budget cuts and increased taxes. Absent rapid GDP growth to bring debt-to-GDP levels down to manageable norms, Americans can’t be confident in a future that holds only two unacceptable alternatives – substantial tax increases or sustained inflation.
As the president who declared the era of big government over, Clinton understands our perilous fiscal state. Were he to emerge from the Twilight Zone, he’d agree that government spending should be capped at 20 percent of GDP -- the average during his presidency and a Romney campaign promise. He’d be opposed to increasing taxes in a fragile economy, as President Obama proposes. Most importantly, he’d be appalled at the lack of leadership evident in Obama’s budget – no plan to address the looming fiscal crisis and trillion-dollar deficits into oblivion.
Think Again – outside the Twilight Zone, it’s the pro-growth policies, stupid!
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last week, amidst the firestorm over the words “you didn’t build that,” actor Sherman Hemsley passed away. Americans remember Hemsley for playing George Jefferson, TV’s popular upwardly mobile black businessman. Known for “movin’ on up to the east side” out of Archie Bunker’s neighborhood, we cheered George as he strutted triumphantly into his “deluxe apartment in the sky,” having “finally got a piece of the pie.”
Imagine George’s reaction were anyone to tell him that government was integral to his success, or that he didn’t build his business on his own -- he’d slam the door while hollering “Think Again!”
Considering half of small businesses fail within five years, entrepreneurs like George deserve credit for more than “a whole lotta tryin’ just to get up that hill.” Despite the risks of failure, George made it “in the big leagues” because he possessed unique entrepreneurial traits: business acumen, self-sacrifice, leadership and a willingness to hurdle government obstacles.
Personal fulfillment derived from “odds-beating” industriousness is why America’s founders enshrined the right to pursue happiness in our national creed. Earned success is both materially enriching and spiritually uplifting – and the source of America’s extraordinary prosperity.
Now in the midst of what CBS News labeled “the worst economic recovery America has ever had,” risk-takers like George deserve encouragement, not derision -- nor the toxic cocktail of tax hikes and increased regulations they face. Since 1993, their small businesses have created two-thirds of private sector jobs. Furthermore, they and their employees are among a shrinking percentage of Americans who pay taxes to a government whose current annual deficit is the size of President Clinton’s first budget.
When tax-hike proponents justify expansive government by praising its most legitimate and necessary functions, they’re like David Copperfield, expertly distracting us with one hand so we don’t notice the other. The concern isn’t spending on roads, bridges, teachers or fireman; it’s the 60% of the federal budget consumed by our massive welfare state -- a catchall for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other “safety net” programs created by vote-hungry politicians.
Because all citizens -- not just the poor -- receive federal benefits, we’re all self-entitled “welfare queens” now. Consequently, welfare state defenders know it’s the proverbial “third rail” – politicians touch it at their peril.
The welfare state is the single biggest financial problem we face, annually consuming more than the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars plus the TARP bailouts. Like the “blob,” it grows by devouring everything in its path, requiring us to borrow $41,222 per second just to keep government running. At almost $16 trillion, the national debt exceeds the size of our economy and is growing so rapidly, the Congressional Budget Office predicted it could cause a permanent recession by 2025.
Like an overweight jockey riding an emaciated thoroughbred, our bloated government sector is not only crushing the private economy, it’s handicapping our opportunity society. Americans are aspirational and self-reliant people, so it’s heart wrenching to note that after spending $15 trillion in the “War on Poverty,” America’s poverty rate has barely budged, food stamp dependency is at a record high, and the percentage of Americans in the work force is at a record low.
As economist Herb Stein said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” New York Times columnist Bill Keller called for that last week writing, “We should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause.”
But now that we’re in the fourth consecutive year in which the US Senate has abdicated its duty to pass a budget for fear of electoral consequences, where are the courageous leaders willing to discharge this fiscal suicide bomb? How do we secure America as a beacon of opportunity (and preserve benefit programs for the generations of Americans paying for them) unless we insist on the distinction between a welfare program and a welfare state?
Our founders were concerned America would reach this moment. John Adams warned: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Americans are concerned too, according to last week’s Rasmussen survey in which a record low 14 percent expect today’s children to be better off than their parents.
We didn’t build the welfare state, but now that it’s crumbling and imperiling our way of life, we have the opportunity to transform our government so that it will serve us better. Doing so will renew the moral promise inherent in the American Dream while making it accessible to all.
With free markets and limited government, entrepreneurial risk takers like George Jefferson can deliver renewed opportunity and prosperity, just as they took us from a colonial backwater to an economic superpower.
Think Again -- so our children can earn “a piece of the pie.”
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
The French celebrated Bastille Day last week, 219 years after beheading Marie-Antoinette in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To this day, she’s the poster-child for upper-class excess, entitlement and insensitivity -- the ultimate “1 Percenter.”
However, Think Again before believing every demonization you hear, especially without factcheck.org. In truth, though a privileged aristocrat, Marie-Antoinette was not only a faithful Good Samaritan, she actually never uttered the notorious catchphrase “Let them eat cake.” Never mind those silly details -- social justice was at stake!
By portraying Marie-Anoinette as selfish and out-of-touch, the revolutionaries justified their bloodthirsty mob rule and indiscriminate savagery. Declaring “liberty, equality and fraternity,” they ushered in an anti-democratic period of unlimited governmental power, civil strife, and economic despair, though eventually Enlightenment principles transformed France into a vibrant democracy.
Today, France has Europe’s most state-directed economy, and among its most stagnant and indebted. Prioritizing “the collective interest,” the French prefer government to free market solutions spending more on social welfare than any other developed country. Recently, the anti-wealth rhetoric of newly elected President Hollande -- and his plans to hike taxes – made London the sixth largest French city, to its mayor’s delight.
Similarly Enlightenment-inspired, though resentful of strong government, American revolutionaries devised a system to protect individual liberties. James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men… controls on government would (not) be necessary. In framing a government… you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
While the French were sticking dissenters’ heads on bayonets, Americans enacted a Constitution designed to disperse authority in order to protect the moral promise in our Declaration of Independence: that every individual is born with equal and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the American Revolution facilitated the creation of the freest and most prosperous society on earth.
Over the last century, while America’s free economy boomed attracting immigrants to our opportunity society, politicians were busy encumbering it, à la française. They instituted the income tax, asserted extra-constitutional powers to regulate, dabbled in cronyism and created entitlement programs that now consume 65 percent of the federal budget. Once 3 percent of gross domestic product, government spending is now 25 percent, crowding out the private economy and producing daily deficits of $4 billion.
Consequently, we suffer French-size economic stagnation, unemployment, and debt (up 50 percent since January 2009). Poverty rates are the highest since tracking began in 1959; food stamp dependency is exploding; and the percentage of Americans with a job is the lowest in decades. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans say we’re on the wrong track and that there’s too much government power and too little individual freedom.
Meanwhile, clueless that government policies influence economic decisions, politicians now propose increasing taxes. “Taxmageddon” -- the toxic mix of year-end tax increases – is causing businesses to defer hiring and investment. Even if limited to the top two-percent with incomes over $250,000 (which includes small businesses responsible for half of private sector jobs and $720 billion in earnings), tax increases would create serious recessionary headwinds while funding only 8.5 days of federal spending, per the Congressional Budget Office. This is a blueprint to cripple job creation, and 23 million job-seeking Americans.
Though they agreed it was economically injurious to hike taxes in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate, tax-hikers argue it’s now about fairness while referencing the “roaring 90’s” when rates were higher but before explosions in spending, debt, and stagnation. What's fair about increasing taxes knowing the vulnerable will suffer disproportionately?
What is fair considering 2009 IRS data shows the top one-percent and top five-percent paid 37 percent and 64 percent respectively of federal income taxes, while the bottom half paid two percent? If the richest aren’t yet paying their fair share, doesn’t that suggest they don’t merit their earned success? By denying some Americans their earned success, doesn’t that undermine our opportunity society and social cohesion?
Having migrated toward French values, practices and even their anti-wealth rhetoric, its hard to recall our Founders' belief that government’s role is to protect – not grant -- individual rights and property. To reinvigorate our free society and market economy, we need a true “fairness agenda”: a simpler tax code with fewer special interest loopholes, no more corporate welfare, and reforms that preserve entitlement programs for future generations.
Most importantly, we must recover the private initiative that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville found exceptional in 1830s America: ““In every case at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in America you’re sure to find an association.”
By renewing our commitment to individual liberties and the ethic that each of us – not government -- is our brother’s keeper, Americans “have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” as American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote.
Wouldn’t our Founders want us to Think Again?
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last week after his criminal trial ended with a hung jury, John Edwards proclaimed hopefully, “I don’t think God is through with me,” as he planted the seeds for his comeback. Projecting the false modesty and manufactured authenticity that vaulted the one-term Senator toward the Presidency, Edwards personifies Graucho Marx’s maxim that “the secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
In response to Edwards, I imagined a collective uproar: “Think Again, John -- the jig is up!” As Edwards exits stage left, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker takes center stage. He, along with brave governors in New Jersey, Indiana, South Carolina, Louisiana, and possibly even New York, represent a new breed of leader emboldened to end public sector unions’ stranglehold on our governments and economy.
Putting aside Edwards’ despicable personal conduct, he is emblematic of the corrupt patronage system that Governor Scott Walker ended in Wisconsin -- the one that allows government unions to cement relationships with self-serving politicians, leaving taxpayers unrepresented and rendering many states insolvent. By voting decisively to retain Walker (the only US governor to survive a recall), Cheeseheads declared the jig is finally up for this brand of special-interest cronyism and the politicians who perpetuate it – at least in Wisconsin.
The truth is, public-sector unions don’t serve a compelling social need since governments don’t exploit labor for profits. Furthermore, as Franklin Roosevelt cautioned, “the process of collective bargaining…. cannot be transplanted into the public service...[without risking] paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it.” Realizing this, President Carter reduced collective-bargaining rights for federal employees by signing the Civil Service Reform Act.
It’s ironic that public sector unions met their match in Wisconsin, the birthplace of American progressivism and public sector unionism where roughly two-thirds of voters either are or are related to union members. Now, progressive Wisconsin is proof that the crisis of the modern entitlement state being played out worldwide -- from the Eurozone to California -- doesn’t have to be a Greek tragedy.
In Wisconsin, even union sympathizers realize everyone is ill served when the government can't meet its obligations. They know the promises politicians make far exceed our ability to pay and, watching Europe implode from the same disorder, realize there is only one choice -- reduced yet sustainable government or bankruptcy. Wisconsin voted for balance knowing the essential first step on the path to prosperity and opportunity is for governments to recover fiscal soundness.
That was Walker’s pledge in 2010. Facing the fourth highest tax burden in the country and determined to reverse Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or firing workers, Walker’s reforms disallowed collective bargaining for public-employee unions (except police and firefighters). No longer can unions negotiate their taxpayer-funded benefits with politicians they helped elect using mandatory dues. Additionally, Walker asked government employees to contribute modestly more to their health and retirement benefits. Even after these reforms, Wisconsin workers enjoy “a combined salary-benefits compensation premium of around 22 percent over private sector workers,” according to an American Enterprise Institute study released last month.
Though modest, the unions and their allies reacted ferociously to these reforms, like a mama bear defending her cub. They captured national attention with protests, runaway state senators, legal challenges and state senator recall elections. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t overcome the will of the people -- to keep the reforms.
That’s because Walker’s reforms are succeeding: The budget has a $150 million surplus; property taxes are lower; the unemployment rate is 6.8 percent (the lowest since 2008 and well below the national average); the private sector created 26,000 jobs in 2011; and savings realized by school districts have preserved jobs and educational programming. Most encouraging, according to a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey in May, 73 percent of employers predicted moderate to good business growth and more than half plan to expand operations within two years – the highest rate in a decade.
No wonder one-third of union members voted for Walker, according to exit polls. Seeing union policies drain government finances, endanger vital government services, and undermine their own jobs and benefits, why would union members want to pay their dues? Now that they have the option not to, tens of thousands have opted out. Perhaps this is the best outcome of all, for civil society is healthier when government employees believe they’re on the same side as taxpayers.
As CS Lewis said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
Though it’s too late for Edwards, other self-proclaimed “progressives” must Think Again – good policy makes great politics.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
When Gloria Steinem popularized the saying “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, I wasn’t old enough to wear a bra, never mind burn it. However, thanks to that feminist credo and its infiltration of 1970s popular culture, women of my generation grew up believing we could make it on our own, like Mary Tyler Moore. While her theme song cautioned, “this world is awfully big, girl,” our confidence rose with Mary’s cap, tossed triumphantly to “you’re going to make it after all.”
Indeed, we did make it, though presidential campaign operatives peddling the “War on Women” narrative want you to Think Again. They insist it’s a war on women when it’s actually a war for women’s votes. This month’s political ad, “The Life of Julia,” occasions the question: which voter are they after, Georgia in Greece or Mary in Minneapolis?
Julia is a single, faceless cartoon – evidently an American everywoman – who depends on European-like, cradle-to-grave government assistance from pre-school through retirement. As if being tethered to a dependency-inducing nanny-state were attractive to American women (or plausible given mounting debt) Julia, like her entitled European cousin, is the anti-Mary -- she can’t make it on her own.
Sadly, this government-centered and soul-deadening narrative is as false and harmful to women as the notion that we should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Both beget a toxic cocktail of subservience, loss of identity and worthlessness -- the antithesis of feminism. Franklin Roosevelt cautioned that dependence “induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber”…and “the human spirit.”
The antidote to “learned helplessness” and its corollary unhappiness is “earned success”, according to economist Arthur Brooks, President of American Enterprise Institute and happiness authority. In his new book “The Road to Freedom,” Brooks explains, “people crave earned success, which comes from achievement, not a check. It’s the freedom to be an individual and to delineate your life’s ‘profit’”…whether measured in money, “making beautiful art, saving people’s souls, or pulling kids out of poverty.”
Earned success is what our Founders meant by “the pursuit of happiness” which is America’s “moral promise” to its citizens. Brooks praises the Founders’ visionary insight because “allowing us to earn our success is precisely what gives each of us the best chance at achieving real happiness,” and his data proves it.
Feminists understood earned success knowing self-reliance and freedom would yield more choices, achievement, self-respect and fulfillment if women had a level playing field. Now, four decades since Helen Reddy sang “I am Woman,” women are “The Richer Sex” -- the book by Liza Mundy documenting women’s economic advancement. The New York Times book review noted: women hold 51 percent of management and professional jobs; wives at least co-earn in two-thirds of marriages; and women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and comprise 60 percent of graduate students.
Meanwhile, according to a March National Journal poll, three-quarters of women believe they can advance as far as their talents take them. Not surprisingly, women account for seven of the top 10 spots on Forbes 2012 World’s Most Powerful Celebrities list including the top two, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey.
Despite these spectacular achievements, economic stagnation makes otherwise self-sufficient women – especially single ones -- insecure and uncertain. Preying on this anxiety, ambitious politicians cast themselves as compassionate by promising a lifetime of government benefits to a nation of Julia’s. Considering the tortuous unraveling of the Eurozone, this idea is both fantasy and dangerous.
In Europe, hopelessly large social security and entitlement promises exceed governments’ ability to tax and borrow, crushing those who believed economic security is a basic human right. Yet, as European leaders grapple with resentments caused by austerity measures, American politicians make the same promises that precipitated Europe’s crisis.
Brooks would argue that even Julia knows it’s wrong to make promises you don’t intend to keep. He warns, “Americans today are experiencing a low-grade, virtual servitude to an ever-expanding, unaccountable government that…. has created a protected class of government workers and crony corporations that play by a different set of rules … and has consequently left the nation in hock for generations to come.”
Thankfully, American women are watching and willing to act. According to a Rasmussen poll released this week, nearly two-thirds of women (and men) prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes. So rather than foster dependency, why not encourage the fiercely independent and self-reliant ethic that originally motivated feminists and propelled women’s economic advancement?
The real war on women is the one waged by those whose policies undermine our economy thus limiting everyone’s choices, mobility and independence. As for Julia, she’d be better served by policies that empower her as an individual, not ones that encourage reliance on government.
Think Again, Julia – you can “make it on your own.”
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
“The higher up in the tree the monkey goes, the more of his backside that shows,” goes the maxim. It would be hard to climb higher than Warren Buffett, the world's most celebrated investor. However, as the namesake of the Buffett Rule that imposes higher tax rates on the wealthy, Buffett and his backside dangle precariously “out on a limb.”