When I am in my car driving between 3 to 6 p.m., one of my guilty pleasures is listening to talk radio host Ron Smith of WBAL-AM. Ron is the Babe Ruth of talk show hosts—he combines being provocative and literate about a wide variety of subjects with being a non-partisan critic of the failures of both Republicans and Democrats. I call it a guilty pleasure because, although Ron is not mean spirited, some of his callers can be; and there are moments when you cringe as you listen.
After the stock market closes at 4 p.m., the amicable Jonathan Murray, Vice President of Investments for a large NYSE firm, comes on to give the “closing bell report.” Jonathan is a very good salesman, and he plays the part of the cheery optimist reassuring investors that stocks and bonds remain good investments.
He also plays the part of giving glib and seemingly plausible, expert explanations as to why the stock market moved how it did that day. The other day the stock market was down; oil was up; and not surprisingly, like many analysts, Jonathan incorrectly attributed causation.
Ron likes to banter with Jonathan, and Ron began to comment on how many people are being hurt by rising gasoline prices. Jonathan jumped in with a glib: “I know, I’m being hurt” type comment. He was quickly rebuked by Ron who pointed out that Jonathan was not exactly on the edge financially, and that for many families, rising fuel bills are literally causing them to go without other essentials.
As I listened, I began to reflect on how many individuals in this country no longer work for a living—for them the impact of rising fuel bills is a nuisance, instead of a frightening attack on their standard of living.
Our county was founded by revolutionaries who did not believe in wealth that was earned through privilege. In Europe, wealth could be earned and maintained if you were a member of the aristocracy or the church or if you were a merchant who was granted a monopoly by the crown.
In recent decades, the number of Americans achieving wealth or living through unearned means has skyrocketed. Here are just a few examples:
Politicians—When Harry Truman left the presidency in 1953, he had no personal savings; an Army pension of $112 a month was his sole income. He literally had to take out a personal loan from a Missouri bank to survive. In contrast, Bill and Hillary Clinton managed to achieve great personal wealth though their career of “public service” and have earned close to $110 million dollars since leaving the White House. As the saying goes “they came to do good and ended up doing well.” Career politicians have become America’s new aristocrats.
Subsidized Businesses—This blog has been covering subsidies to ethanol. Of course, ethanol subsidies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are subsidies for farm commodities, there are tariffs and quotas that protect domestic producers of steel, textiles and other goods, there are laws without which nuclear energy could not exist, there are laws which have granted cable companies monopolies, etc. These subsidies are little different in effect than the monopolies granted by the crown centuries ago.
Subsidized Professions—Lawyers who lobby for subsidies for businesses have jobs that would not exist without government subsidies, doctors whose incomes are enhanced because the AMA is able to hold down the supply of physicians, excess public school administrators who would not have jobs on a free-market, and professors who can’t teach or do meaningful research and yet who earn a good living are just a few examples of distortions caused by government grants of privilege.
The Defense Establishment—In their farewell addresses, Washington warned of entangling alliances and Eisenhower warned of the militarily-industrial complex. Both warnings have been ignored, and today both entangling alliances and a huge military-industrial complex have been a bi-partisan norm that threatens our liberties and our economic well-being. Millions earn their livelihood through this complex which has gone far beyond providing for the needed defense of this country.
Obviously, I could go on. The point is that as the proportion of Americans who depend upon government for their livelihood increases, the proportion of people working for a living shrinks and the vitality of this nation is drained away. As this happens, the American experiment at some point will become unsustainable.