Monday, October 21, 2013

Learned Hopelessness

Dante read these words on the gates to the Inferno:  “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate." Translated: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

Americans, especially young Americans, voted for Barack Obama because he was selling hope. In a time of despair and depression people tend to want to keep hope up, the better to forge ahead against difficult obstacles.

After five years living in Obamaworld Americans are increasingly losing hope. They are losing hope for the future. More and more of them believe that America’s best days lie in the past.

John Hinderaker summarized the results of two Rasmussen polls:

So the Age of Obama has brought the percentage who think America’s best days are still ahead down from 45% to 31%, while the number who think our best days are gone has risen from 37% to 52%.

Today we read that 6 million young people, between 16 and 24 are neither in school nor on the job. Poverty has increased in all but one American state.

The AP reports:

… 49 states have seen an increase in the number of families living in poverty and 45 states have seen household median incomes fall in the last year. The dour report underscores the challenges young adults face now and foretell challenges they are likely to face as they get older.

Note well: they are referring to the “last year.” It’s difficult to blame the Bush administration for what happened last year.

Joel Kotkin observes that the gap between rich and poor has been widening, to the point where those who are not extremely wealthy have little real hope of advancing in an increasingly polarized America.

Declining prospects for upward mobility, and the simultaneous social inequality, are the existential issues of our time. The percentage of adults who believe things will be better for their kids is at its lowest point in 30 years, with a majority now saying upward mobility for the next generation is not likely. The kids, God bless them, are still far more optimistic.

Despite President Obama's occasional class-warfare rhetoric, this gap has widened significantly under his watch; the top 1 percent of earners garnered more than 90 percent of the income growth in his first two years, compared with 65 percent under George W. Bush. But the problem is more extensive than one or two administrations. Most Americans' incomes have stagnated for almost a quarter century.

Inequality is on the rise throughout the country, while there are significant differences in its depth by geography and region. California is producing ever more billionaires, three times as many as in regularly faster-growing Texas, but the middle class is in secular decline, according to a recent Public Policy Institute Study, and now constitutes less than half California's population. The state also suffers the highest rate of poverty in the country and is now home to roughly one-third of the nation's welfare recipients, equal to almost three times its proportion of the nation's population.

As always, I have the greatest respect for Joel Kotkin. His analyses are fair and objective. Yet, when he says that Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric is “occasional” he does not do justice to a president who has made divide-and-conquer the hallmark of his politics. Obama has been feeding America a constant diet of class-warfare rhetoric and America has been buying it.

Americans, especially the disadvantaged, have also bought the notion that if only we had slightly higher taxes, a tad more income redistribution, we could enter a golden age of equality.

Obviously, the promise is a lie. When put into practice it produces even more inequality.

Kotkin mentions, and not for the first time the inequality gap in California. In a city like New York, .5% of the people pay fully 50% of the taxes. Has New York become more equal? Not at all, it has become more unequal.

It’s not very difficult to understand. Relying on government programs to solve problems disempowers individuals. It tells lower and middle class citizens that they are victims and that their grievances can only be redressed by the intervention of powerful outside forces, like the government. This implies that they are not responsible for their condition and that they themselves cannot do anything to solve the problem.

One understands why this would be a welcome message in certain precincts.

Still, it is a counsel of despair. The Obama administration is trafficking in veiled hopelessness.

Kotkin does not reject cure-by-programs, but he does point out a far more important and salient point: areas of the nation where there is the least inequality tend to have certain cultural characteristics.

Hope is well and good, but there’s more to success than blind hope. By now America should have figured out that blind hope leads only to despair.

Studies have shown that in parts of the country where there are large Scandanavian and German populations, as well a parts of the country where Asians congregate, the situation looks far better and far more equal.

People who live in these cultures value what has been called the Protestant work ethic. They also value self-discipline, self-control and a sense of duty.

Kotkin explains:

But perhaps the least-appreciated factor may be ethnicity, something discussed more emotionally than logically. The least inequality, [demographer Richard] Morrill notes, occurs within what he calls the “Germanic belt” that extends from large parts of Pennsylvania, across the northern Great Lakes and the Plains, all the way to the Pacific Northwest, as well as Utah; many Mormons are of German, Scandinavian and other northern European stock.

Peruse a map of U.S. ethnicities, along with Morrill's findings, and you can see this extremely high degree of confluence. One key may be culture. German and Scandinavian heritage, Morrill notes, embraces egalitarianism, self-control and social obligation, all of which are ideal characteristics for economic progress.

After all, Scandinavia itself has less poverty, and more widespread prosperity, than virtually anywhere in the world. A Scandinavian economist, promoting social democracy once told Milton Friedman: “In Scandinavia we have no poverty.” Friedman replied, “That's interesting, because in America, among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either.” Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is 6.7 percent, about half the U.S. average. Economists Geranda Notten and Chris de Neubourg have found the poverty rate in Sweden to be an identical 6.7 percent.

The “Germanic belt” areas also tend to emphasize education, most importantly, at the grade school level. The best science scores among eighth-graders, according the National Educational Assessment, are found almost totally in the northern-tier, heavily Germanic region of the country. Northern European redoubts such as Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Utah and northern New England all scored best. Amazingly, California, the nation's undisputed technological capital, ranks 47th; New York, much of the south (excluding Texas) and the Southwest do much more poorly.

When you rely on government you produce people who are dependent, who do not believe that they can advance by taking initiatives and who imagine that if they vote for the right candidates, everything will be taken care of.

Those whose indigenous culture is founded on self-reliance can best weather the storm. Those whose culture has not been founded on the principle that hard work is needed to advance in the world will have far more difficulty.


Ari said...

You wrote:

Note well: they are referring to the “last year.” It’s difficult to blame the Bush administration for what happened last year.

No. It's not. Just repeat it a few hundred times. Keep the message simple. People will begin to catch on and blame Bush. Failing that, blame the House of Representatives. Problem solved.

Anonymous said...

Even though I was a youth when Reagan was President I decided that myopic optimism is over-rated.

The optimist claims we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist agrees!