Thoughts On Free Ponies And The Future

At Redstate this morning, Leon Wolf has a sad, ominous and thought-provoking piece on the Occupy Wall Street protests and the larger economic circumstances facing the country. It’s well worth a read, even though I’m going to crib from it quite liberally here.

He begins with a personal story of woe in the current economy…

Almost six months ago, I lost my job.

Since that time, I have sent out easily over 250 resumes, many of which were sent to law firms where friends were partners. They have netted me a grand total of three interviews. My friends are telling me that for jobs that pay roughly 75% of what I used to make, they are getting over 150 applications. When I graduated from law school, roughly 95% of my graduating class had real jobs. I ran into a recent graduate the other day and she told me that this year, only about 40% of the most recent graduating class is employed. I have never encountered a market this brutal in any field in which I have worked, and the struggle against complete surrender is a daily endeavor.

In the meantime, I have been doing contract work when it is available. It is not nearly enough, but it is miles better than nothing and I am thrilled to have it. When I don’t, I sit around for interminable days and fire off more resumes that I am nearly sure will never result in anything. I am hopelessly behind on innumerable bills, including my house and over $160,000 in student loans – so far behind that even if I found permanent work tomorrow, I would never be able to sort out my arrearage.  Without the completely undeserved generosity of family and friends, I’m not sure how I’d be eating. When I came out of law school, they were handing out more six figure jobs than they had people available to fill them – now there isn’t anything in sight that could even be qualified as full-time. I recently went to Outback steakhouse and applied for a job – which I didn’t get because the manager was sure I’d just bail and go back to lawyering any day.

Wolf’s situation is anything but an uncommon one. Lawyers are quite literally a dime a dozen at present, the product of too many law schools cranking out too many lawyers for too few legal cases in an economy which is simply not dynamic enough to generate demand for their services. But the legal profession isn’t the only one in such circumstances – there are lots of unemployed realtors right now, too, for example.

And there isn’t a great deal of advice anyone can offer him for his situation. Typically speaking, bad economies like the one we’re in now are remedied when talented folks like Wolf who are displaced from their jobs by recession come up with an idea or a way to leverage their skills and start a business. And when enough of those folks find a way to make ends meet and begin growing those little shops, you see job creation and the beginning of an economic recovery. And what usually happens is that once the recovery gets started the economy grows like a weed.

A growing economy means people get rich. When you take an economic risk and it pays off, you prosper.

But right now, prosperity is viewed with suspicion. Government policies reflect that through public-sector takeovers like Obamacare and regulatory excesses like Dodd-Frank and all the things the EPA is doing. And as a result, there are less people interested in taking those economic risks – they can’t forecast precisely what the risk is, or what the payoff might be, so they’d rather just wait it out and see if the climate improves.

And then when you see people like the Occupy Wall Street crowd agitating for free college tuition and $20 an hour in welfare for everybody, one wonders if the climate ever will improve. Back to Wolf…

So, you know, for people who are frustrated about the current state of the economy, I get it. I don’t really like to talk about any of the stuff I just mentioned above, but I felt compelled when someone pointed out a couple of websites to me today. The first is a list of proposed list of demands for the Occupy Wall Street crowd. The second is called we are the 99 per cent and it is basically the same concept. And after reading these websites, I don’t know whether these people are trying to destroy America, or whether they have already succeeded.

I am going to try to suppress the overwhelming urge to mock people who think every United States citizen deserves to be paid $20 an hour for not working, or that Wall Street ought to pay a trillion dollars (which I am told is a figure that is more than twice the total equity of every firm on Wall Street combined) to replant rain forests. Nor will I comment on people who are surprised that they don’t have marketable skills after spending $60,000 on a degree in jazz flute in any economy. While the people who have contributed to these websites are clearly not very good at life skills (or math), there are lots of people who have been legitimately knocked on their keister and now find themselves unable to pay bills they know they owe but simply don’t have the money for.

He’s talking about what we talked about above – the folks who lead the economy out of recession are the ones who, out of ambition or desperation, are willing to put their rear ends on the line and start businesses. But the Occupy Wall Street crowd will never do such things. They’ve generally refused to engage in the economy or even prepare themselves to do so through their education. Ask the demonstrators when you see them, if you have the chance, what their majors are/were in college and see how many business management, accounting, engineering, medical, information technology or other practical degrees are being pursued. You’ll find very few. You’ll see lots of liberal arts majors (full disclosure: I’m one of those myself, having tried accounting and found it painful before retreating into the highly-diverting-but-difficult-to-monetize history degree) and people who are surprised to find that gender studies and sociology degrees don’t lead to jobs that pay off $200,000 in student loans.

Again, though, the answer is to get serious about growing the pie, not slicing it. But will a successful application of that strategy produce the comfort of the bubble economy of the last decade which ultimately gave us the recession Obama is turning into a depression? Wolf is right to worry…

It is time to face reality. I am not nearly well-informed enough to offer even an educated guess as to the immediate cause of the market crash and subsequent recession/depression. But it seems painfully clear at this point that a substantial portion of the economic growth we enjoyed in the years prior to 2007 was entirely illusory and funded by ill-advised and unsustainable lending practices. This is a problem that doesn’t solve itself overnight. And moreover, when it is “solved,” a substantial portion of us will nonetheless have to accept a lifestyle that is much less comfortable than the ones we enjoyed 5 years ago.

What scares me – I mean, truly terrifies me – about this entire situation is not what I am going to do about my own predicament (although I would be lying if I said it did not cause me substantial amounts of stress). It is that no Presidential candidate who stands a chance of winning can afford to say anything like the preceding paragraph. It would be political suicide for any candidate – Republican or Democrat – to suggest aloud, “You know what? As a candidate I can fix things around the edges and start us on the road to recovery, but if we’re being perfectly honest with each other, it’s going to be a long time (if ever) before things get back to the way they were.”

And if the American people cannot stand to hear that message even when it is the manifest truth, we are in serious trouble. Because what it means is that we have become a nation in which people cannot be told to act like adults because we are no longer capable of doing it. And a nation where people have to be promised free ponies and unicorn dust even when everyone can see there’s no more ponies in the stable is a nation that’s just biding its time until final collapse.

I’m going to say things are not as bad as all that.

America is engaged in an economic challenge mostly of our own making, but it needs to be understood that some significant portion of our national story of prosperity came from the fact that for most of the 20th Century we were alone in the world in actually producing goods and services. Western Europe slit its throat with two colossally destructive wars which eviscerated most of its major economic players (some permanently like Britain, some more temporarily like Germany), Russia and Eastern Europe spent some portion of 70 years engaged in Soviet communism, as did China and several other Pacific Rim countries, India frittered away decades with advanced forms of Fabian socialism before finally embracing the market, and Africa and Latin America spent the century mired in kleptocracy and corruption.

That left America as the only consistent pursuer of economic prosperity on the planet for what came to almost an entire century. Given such circumstances, it’s little surprise that we’d get accustomed to world dominance and lavish luxury.

Things have changed. China isn’t communist anymore but more fascist/corporatist, which ultimately is also ruinous but not as demonstrably so, India has embracd the free market as have Russia and Brazil (in their own highly imperfect way) and other developing countries are beginning to compete in the world economy.

So it’s not possible for Americans to take $50,000-a-year jobs for granted. Work ethic and actual expertise are required. Things will be more difficult than they’ve been.

And we’re coming to a choice, because as Wolf notes there aren’t any ponies left in the stable. We can either accept that this country will be less than it’s been in the past while forcing those of us capable of competing on the world stage to greatly subsidize the rest, or we’re going to have to recognize that maintaining our world dominance means those who can’t or won’t bring tools to the job will have to be left behind (or more accurately, that private charities and family will have to pick up what a no-longer-redistributionist government will be leaving off). There may be some middle ground between those two choices, but it’s shrinking with the resources available amid our mounting debt.

The good news, though, is that the latter approach has a track record. It’s what made us dominant in the first place. And it’s what the majority of the country wants at the end of the day, even though cultural factors and political correctness make it difficult for anyone to articulate.

It’s important that we start getting the kind of leadership Wolf worries isn’t possible, though.

Maybe I am alone in being somewhat nervous at the rhetoric I’ve heard thus far on the campaign trail. I have no doubt that any of the GOP candidates, even including Ron Paul, would do a better job of being President than Obama. The problem with Obama is not that he’s doing nothing, as is often implied; the problem is that he’s doing the wrong things. The things he is doing are providing minimal and largely ineffectual relief in the present and creating worse problems in the future. That, by all means, should be criticized. But by implication I’m concerned that some GOP candidates are inadvertently creating Obama-like expectations (a la 2008) with grandiose promises about the improvements that will occur once he is gone.

Improvements may well occur; however, things are simply not going to go back to the way they were overnight and it is dangerous to suggest that they will. Repeating this message ad nauseam every Presidential election cycle only further entrenches the belief that the Federal government is the key determining factor in the existence vel non of jobs, which is exactly the sort of thinking that leads to moronic websites like the ones listed above.

Perhaps the best lesson of this current economic depression might be that government simply cannot generate economic growth, and its efforts to do so usually aren’t just futile but destructive. Government efforts at increasing home ownership destroyed the real estate market, for example. Government efforts to create a “green energy” industry result in Solyndra. If the pursuers of this statist utopia were any good at being venture capitalists they’d be venture capitalists instead of community organizers and city councilmen and union bosses and economists.

And that means Republicans should stop promising prosperity, regardless of the admonitions of the political consultants to do so. Republicans, when asked “what is YOUR jobs plan?” should rightly bristle at the premise.

It is true that Obama’s presidential demise will be a boon to America’s economy. He’s doing damage, and replacing him and Harry Reid with GOP control will constitute an immediate improvement simply because the boot on our economic throat will be removed once the policies of the Left aren’t being practiced. But for Wolf’s fears to be alleviated will require a great deal of work by a great number of people, yes, over a lengthy period. It took the better part of the 1920’s, perhaps America’s finest decade of economic and technological innovation, to recover from Wilsonian “War Socialism.” It took most of a decade following World War II to recover from FDR’s New Deal. It took most of the 1980’s to recover from the statist policies of Nixon and Carter, and we’ve yet to recover from LBJ’s Great Society poison. So recovering from Obama’s regulatory orgy will not happen by the fall of 2013, as beneficial as change in Washington might be.

And Wolf is correct in saying that the GOP candidates need to present the public with realistic expectations and reject the idea that they can deliver prosperity courtesy of Hope and Change. After all, good times are far more difficult  to be achieved than simply by some guy getting elected, as we’ve seen over the past three years.

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