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February 7, 2016

Is Long-term Economic, Political Discontent Ahead?

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson is one of a handful of economic writers I pay a lot of attention to. If you are a political junkie, you should read his April 28 piece The Twilight of Entitlement, which has profound implications for American politics and for the nation’s psyche.

Samuelson isn’t talking merely about Social Security or Medicare when he writes about “entitlements.” Instead, he is talking about a set of “attitudes and beliefs” best expressed by President Bill Clinton when he said, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dream.”

That’s no longer the case, the veteran columnist writes, noting increased financial anxiety and less optimism about the future in at least two recent surveys.

The post-World War II period offered growth, opportunity and optimism for Americans, but, if Samuelson is right, we have already entered a period which is more about dividing a relatively stable pie than about sharing in a growing pie.

“Popular national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem inadequate. The ‘safety net,’ private and public, is besieged,” he writes, arguing that Americans no longer believe that they can count on a strong economy, secure jobs, home ownership, fixed tax burdens, college education and an ever expanding government safety net.

But while polling shows a public more anxious about the future and less certain that tomorrow will be a better day, it’s far from clear that most Americans are willing to give up the “entitlements” that Samuelson refers to. Most still believe that they deserve a college education, home ownership, good jobs and a government that is always willing and able to help.

The political ramifications of this change are obvious. As Samuelson writes, “political conflicts — who gets, who gives — and social resentments will be, as they already are, sharper.”

Given the speed at which messages are delivered — via Twitter, Facebook and email — and the increasingly ideological carriers such as MSNBC, Fox News and ideological news websites, the conflicts accompanying the change in the national mood can only be deeper and meaner.

Decide for yourself whether Samuelson is right about the trend and exactly how that will affect our political debate and elections. Read the column and leave your responses below.

  • Mike Pisciotta

    Social Security is NOT an entitlement… I’ve paid into it my entire working life, and I want my money back! You talking heads are idiots. You want to stop entitlements, stop giving to those who won’t earn a living and force them into the job market or freeway underpasses.

    • Gatorwonk

      Getting $3 for every $1 you put in is not sustainable. No one wants to entirely eradicate the programs. Mostly we we just wish for an honest conversation about the actual costs of the programs, and to determine whether it is fair for the security of the old to be supported on the backs of the young in such and ongoing and egregious manner.

  • martybomalley

    You only have to read R.J. Samuelson’s first sentence to know that he has zero perspective about today’s economy. “disappointing economic growth and increasing political polarization.” Would any knowledgeable economist describe the aftermath of Great Depression in those terms? Yet today’s economy barely avoided a replay of that catastrophe. Then he shills his book with a derogatory definition of middle class”entitlements” and avoids stating his premise of the 1% entitlements. For sure, without the benefits of nepotism, no one would know Samuelson’s name.

  • Drew

    “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dreams.” Bill Clinton’s statement is only a political platitude. It lacks specificity like most things politicians say. Work hard— what work, how hard? The pols are never willing to tell voters government creates nothing and can’t provide for most of us. To get votes, they give voters the idea that they will take care of you but the opposite is true, we take care of them.

    A good example of political charades is education. The truth is, the reason kids don’t learn is their parents don’t send them to school motivated to learn. But the pols will never tell parents they are problem because parent are also voters. The result is too many kids drop out, no one ever tells parents they are the problem, and the next generation repeat the mistakes.

    Samuelson writes of “besieged” Americans. Rothenberg talks of “who gets & who gives”. The truth is that both politicians and the press tell us government has failed us. They should be saying many of us want a “Nanny State” and are unwilling to take care of ourselves.

  • Malcolm Kantzler

    I am most bothered by the “entitlements” to which lawmakers ascribe. Like the financiers who broke the economy and the bounded economic structure of American manufacturing and jobs, and who are doubly rewarded now by soaking up bonuses and foreclosed homes to rent out, lawmakers have been long living above the law, and even when exposed—as “60 Minutes” did, with respect to rampant self-enrichment through “insider trading” tactics of legislators, old and new, ranking and not, on both sides of the aisle—they change the “ethics” rules with dignified fanfare, and then, like bank robbers who lay low, waiting for the heat to blow over, they sweep away the rules put in place for themselves and their staffs, as “60 Minutes” reported they had just done last week, to go on with their under-tabled, derelict behavior.

    Americans deserve the ineffectual, bickering, self-serving, child-antic government we have, and the consequent structure of laws that separate most from the riches and advantages of the few, because they keep on electing the same, thorny lot again and again, in a cycle of true insanity, without even an expectation of achieving something different, a mindless wallowing in apathy and disinterest, led by the nose with the platitudes wrought from the PR and electoral-process practitioners who have rigged and ride on the whole process to leave us gasping desperately in their dust for something pure and rewarding.

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