Obama’s Paradoxes

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Consider the myriad paradoxes of the Obama age. Unprecedented government borrowing is out of control, unsustainable, and finally causing financial markets to panic. Yet we are told that the necessary cutting ahead will further stall the stalled economy. We went from $9 trillion to $14 trillion in aggregate debt in order to jump-start a sluggish recovery, and failed — only to be warned that if we do not proceed to incur even more debt — from $14 trillion to $16 trillion — we will stall the stalled effort to restart the stalled economy. So more of what did not work most surely will work?

The Left insists that the real problem is not unmanageable debt, but near-record unemployment, as if the two were unrelated. Most Americans apparently once agreed, as Obama easily borrowed nearly $5 trillion in his first two and a half years in office, supposedly to stimulate employers into hiring workers. We are now told the US must borrow more, and should worry less, not more, about paying the money back. The logic of the new Keynesians is that stimulus is never quite achieved because indebtedness is never quite large enough — an Achilles-and-the-tortoise paradox that only insolvency will finally dispel.

Rioting in London and flash mobbing in American cities have raised another paradox: Does contemporary looting and violence follow from physical deprivation or from a boredom, envy, and anger caused by too many subsidies and too little personal initiative and self-reliance? We know that the more we ensure that young people have generous unemployment insurance and government money for housing, food, and education, the more they are likely not to get up at 6 a.m. and take an extra class or look for a job. And yet the more we provide such bread-and-circuses dependencies, the more it becomes dangerous to question such life support. Ask the Emperor Justinian, who cut back on a bloated civil-service and entitlement bureau — and earned the Nika riots, which almost toppled his regime. So even as we suspect that the welfare state is unsustainable, we are told that it alone can prevent social unrest — which we suspect is currently brought about by the welfare state.

We worry about our youth, citing high unemployment among those under 25, a $16 trillion debt bequeathed to them, a bankrupt Social Security and Medicare system propped up by a shrinking and poor youth cohort working for an affluent and long-lived aging generation. But we also fret that young people are not quite suffering in Depression-era style, but instead are hooked on iPhones, iPads, iPods, DVDs, and video games. A new profile of the stay-at-home, electronics-laden, late-20-something-year-old suggests that millions are earning just enough for entertainment, car payments, and gas, subsidized by mom and dad with free rent, food, and laundry. Are today’s students saddled with the highest per capita student-loan debt in history, and at the same time more pampered and learning less than any previous generation?

We all receive impassioned fund-raising letters from our almae matres about cruel budget cuts that threaten brilliant research and inspired teaching. But we also know that universities have more drone administrators subsidized by exploited part-time teachers than ever, as the percentage of the college budget devoted to non-instruction is at an all-time high. So do we give money to save a pathological university as it is, or withhold it on the logic that only scarcity will force it to prune unnecessary spending that is not merely superfluous to learning but actually antithetical to it?

When Barack Obama won the election in 2008, he was quite right that the old system needed fixing. America’s debt, its poorly educated youth, its imbalances in trade, its counterproductive tax system, its out-of-control annual spending, its culture of entitlement and subsidies, all in perfect-storm fashion were starting to coalesce and weaken America from within and the perception of America abroad. The statesmanlike thing to do — in the manner of a once-naïve Harry Truman, who woke up to the threat of Soviet-inspired global Communism, or of a Bill Clinton, who finally addressed some of the contradictions of the welfare state and deficit spending — would have been to overhaul the tax system, recalibrate Social Security and Medicare, cut spending, lecture the citizenry on personal responsibility, and address the therapeutic curriculum in our failing schools. With a 70 percent approval rating and supermajorities in both houses of Congress, Obama could have done almost anything throughout 2009.

Instead, he chose the path of Jimmy Carter and the pre-1995 Bill Clinton — even more redistributive state programs, more stifling regulations, more petulant talk about “them,” more class warfare, more debt, and more failed big government.

As a genuine reactionary wedded to the dream of the 1960s, Obama not only rejected the idea of national renewal, but hastened by a decade or so our day of reckoning with the out-of-control welfare state. Was he naïve in thinking that the private sector could be hectored and harassed, and still create enough new wealth to fund his growing redistributive agenda? Or was he Machiavellian in seeing that only by massive new debt, government regulations, and spread-the-wealth programs would America be reduced to the status of just another indebted European-style socialist state — in itself a good and long-overdue thing?

Finally, one last paradox remains: The once-divine Obama will do more to discredit the Left than any other progressive in modern history — as its greatest dream becomes its worst nightmare.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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