A Culture of Complacency and Entitlement

From a historical perspective, America is still a young nation, yet we seem to have undergone an accelerated cycle of ascendency and decline. After rising from a handful of colonies to the richest and most powerful nation in the world, our country is now declining at an alarming rate under a collapsing economy and a culture of complacency and entitlement.

The rapid rise of this nation was due to a fortunate combination of abundant natural resources, a free market that provided opportunity for everybody, and a strong work ethic that was deeply ingrained in our culture. People immigrated here from all over the world seeking opportunities that uniquely existed here. – They didn’t come because they wanted a handout. There were no handouts. — They just wanted an opportunity to work hard, and to be compensated at fair market value for their industriousness and ingenuity. They were willing to struggle and sacrifice to carve out a better life for themselves and their descendents. That’s why they came to America.

That model worked exceptionally well. America prospered and flourished. We were the first nation ever to have a true middle class. – But then something changed, and we underwent a sudden phase shift from hard-earned ascendency into meteoric decline. What happened to our nation?

I see a direct correlation between the decay of the proud work ethic, upon which this nation was built, and the rise of the credit/entitlement culture. What does credit have to do with a sense of entitlement, or with the loss of our cultural work ethic? Let’s take a look at the moral hazard engendered by easy credit.

When somebody wanted to buy something, but couldn’t afford to pay for it in cash, they used to have to save up for it. Department stores had layaway plans, where a person could put an item on hold while they paid it off. They’d pay a little each month until it was paid in full and, when they made that final payment, they’d go to the store and proudly bring their new possession home. It was very clear how long it took to earn the money it cost to purchase a particular item, and people had to make tradeoffs based on what they could afford.

Then came credit cards. The idea was that you still pay a little every month, but you don’t have to wait until it’s actually paid off to take possession of it. Whatever you want, you can have it now, whether you can afford it or not. And, as long as you make a minimum payment each month, you can keep charging and charging and charging, with no immediate consequences. There’s no longer a clear relationship between what you buy and how long it takes to earn the money to pay for it. And, when you max out one credit card, you get another (usually with a higher interest rate).

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the ratio of household debt to income for the average American family is 122% . That means the average American family spends 22% more than they earn. Clearly, that is not sustainable for even one household – let alone an entire nation. Most Americans are maintaining a much higher standard of living than they can actually afford. And now that the credit market is tightening up, they will no longer be able to sustain it. Inevitably, most of these people will see themselves as victims because they feel entitled to the standard of living to which they’ve become accustomed, — even though they’ve spent most of their lives living way beyond their means.

Some blame the credit crisis on the lenders. That conveniently absolves individuals of taking responsibility for their own actions, and further promotes the entitlement mentality that got them into this untenable situation. To reward the “victims” by bailing them out at other people’s expense further compounds the moral hazard.

A recent publication by the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that almost 43% of Americans don’t even have a retirement savings account. Among those who do, the median amount of their retirement savings is $2,000. That won’t go very far these days.

It used to be part of the culture that everybody set aside a portion of their income, throughout their earning years, to save for their retirement. People routinely sacrificed conveniences and luxuries to build up a “nest egg” so they wouldn’t have to live out the remainder of their lives scraping by at a bare subsistence level. Regrettably, it seems that is no longer part of our culture. Since the Social Security program was introduced during the Great Depression, the subsequent generation of baby boomers never felt it necessary to save for their own retirement. After all, Daddy Government had relieved them of that responsibility by deducting money from every paycheck and setting it aside for them. So why should they bother to save?

Social Security is now officially projected to run out of money by 2037, and it could be a whole lot sooner. So what will happen to all these people who spent their entire lives living beyond their means, who have no savings and no retirement income? They will face a devastating reality from which they’ve been shielded all their lives. They are not entitled to the standard of living to which they’ve become accustomed. Daddy Government is broke, and cannot come to their rescue.

At least they’ll have fond memories of all the lattes, junk food, trinkets, and fads on which they squandered their money instead of saving for their retirement.

But how were they supposed to know? Everybody else was doing the same thing! – And that’s exactly why our once-great nation has fallen into bankruptcy, financially and morally. Because everybody was doing the same stupid thing, and it never occurred to them that they’d someday have to take responsibility for themselves.


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Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 10:18 pm  Comments (14)  
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How to Undermine the Economy

If you wanted to come up with a plan to undermine the economy of the most prosperous and successful nation on earth, how would you go about it?

The first thing you’d have to do would be to debase the underlying value system that provides the foundation for prosperity. That is, the value system to which the founders of this nation, and many generations of immigrants who came here seeking opportunity, subscribed. The core of that value system is the belief that you do not deserve anything you have not earned.

The first step would be to condition the populace to believe that prosperity is bad, that anybody who makes more than a modest income must be evil (or at least dishonest), and that nobody really deserves to be rich, no matter how much they contribute to the economy or how many opportunities they create for others. The rich, by definition, are always a minority, since the term itself implies someone who has substantially greater wealth than the average person. All that’s usually needed to turn the many against the few is a sense of grievance.

Fostering a sense of grievance can be accomplished by promoting the notion that everybody, by virtue of their very existence, is entitled to basic sustenance, such as healthcare, food, shelter, etc. This attitude can be cultivated by establishing a system of bureaucracies (paid for almost entirely by the rich) that provide free handouts to everybody else, while nurturing a sense of perpetual resentment among the people receiving the handouts toward those who provide the wherewithal to satisfy their ever-increasing expectations.

The many are not generally aware that nearly 90% of the income taxes that sustain our government, and all the services “it” provides, are collected from the top 20% of income earners. And, if the many were aware of that, do you think they’d feel like saying “Thank you”? Not likely. Because they’ve been conditioned to believe that the rich don’t deserve their wealth, and that they, the beneficiaries of all those taxes paid by the rich, deserve that money more than the people who earned it. What did the beneficiaries do to deserve it? Nothing. But they exist, and therefore they’re entitled to things they cannot afford, so the money should be taken from those who can afford it and redistributed to them.

Having undermined the cultural values that provide the basis for a prosperous economy, by fostering a culture of dependency on ever-expanding government services, you now have popular support for the next step, which is to penalize production. You do that by regulating industries to the point where the cost of doing business is too great to justify the returns, forcing businesses to either downsize, go bankrupt, or relocate offshore. That increases unemployment, creating an even greater dependency on government services. At the same time, it reduces production so there’s less wealth to tax, and less money coming into the system to support the ever-increasing demands.

At that point, you’ve got a self-perpetuating cycle, with ever-increasing demands on the system and ever-diminishing resources from which to draw to provide for them. To add fuel to the firestorm, you can use the increasing demands as an excuse to raise taxes on the remaining top producers even more, driving more employers out of business or offshore, creating an even larger non-productive class, and further accelerating the drain on the system…

But why stop there? At this point, the economy is so unstable, it can be toppled with ease. To finish it off in style, all that’s required is to spend like a drunken sailor. Get the nation so far in debt to hostile foreign powers that they won’t accept our IOUs any more. Print up fiat money and dilute our currency to the point that the whole world loses confidence in it and the G20 proposes a new international monetary standard. Then distract the citizens by holding contests in Congress to see who can spend money the fastest, and call it a “stimulus plan.”

At that point, the death spiral reaches critical mass. That’s where we are today. How did we get to this point? Well, it could just be a combination of entropy, ignorance, and well-intentioned idiots. Or it could be that there are those who actively seek to undermine our economy to bring our nation to its knees. For what purpose? That depends on who’s pulling the strings. I concede that this begins to sound a little paranoid from someone who usually dismisses conspiracy theories. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that anyone, especially the leaders of our nation, are stupid enough not to realize they’re doing the exact things required to accelerate the collapse of our already destabilized economy. And, if they’re not stupid, then they must have a reason for what they’re doing.

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Entitlement, Dependency, Control

Responsibility isn’t something people are born with. It’s learned. It’s learned by prioritizing, making tradeoffs, weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of alternative courses of action, and dealing with the consequences of one’s decisions.

When an overprotective parent spoils their child by shielding them from hard lessons, or gives the child whatever it wants so the child will love them more, they fail to instill in the child a sense of responsibility. Instead they encumber it with a false sense of entitlement to whatever the child desires. Later, the child is faced with a rude awakening when thrust into a world where it has to compete with others who are accustomed to making hard choices and working for the things they desire.

Once a sense of entitlement is engrained in someone’s belief system, it’s difficult to overcome. Developing a sense of responsibility is counter to their conditioning, and they cannot easily grasp the notion that they are really not entitled to anything they haven’t earned. When something doesn’t come easily, instead of getting fired up with a sense of determination to work harder and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve their goal, they feel resentful that it isn’t provided for them. Whatever nominal effort they put into it seems like it ought to be enough. They feel a deep sense of personal injustice that they can’t have things that other people have, oblivious to the tradeoffs and sacrifices others have had to make to acquire those things.

In the real world, nobody is entitled to own a house. If you can’t afford a house, the responsible thing to do is to work and save and sacrifice until you can afford to buy one. By encouraging people to buy houses they really can’t afford, the government sets them up for failure later on when the house payments become a burden they cannot sustain. And when that time comes, the “homeowners” won’t consider that, until their mortgage is paid in full, the house isn’t actually theirs. Instead, they’ll feel entitled to the house in which they’re living, and deeply resentful of losing it.

A person who buys a house incurs a responsibility. If they’re shielded from the full impact of the responsibility they’re incurring, by making it easier than it would be (in a free market) for them to assume it, it gives them a false sense of security and makes the responsibility seem lighter than it is. That is not a wise thing to do. And the current economic crisis is a perfect illustration of that folly. Yet the government is going down the same path again, with the FHA taking on the role once played by AIG.

This is just one of many examples of the government fostering an entitlement mentality in its citizens. Perhaps, like the parent who spoils their child in an attempt to buy its love, politicians see this as a way to buy votes. But, like overprotective parents trying to make life easier for their precious dumplings, when government shields people from the onus of personal responsibility, it does not strengthen them; it weakens them. And it not only weakens the individual beneficiaries of the government’s largesse, it weakens the entire economy, and the underlying moral fiber of our nation.

For years, our government has been actively encouraging people to become less and less self-reliant. By the same token, it has been making us more and more dependent on government. The flip side of dependency is control. The more dependent one is on another, the more control the other has over them. Perhaps the underlying motivation is not so innocent as politicians trying to buy their constituents’ love. Perhaps it’s far more insidious.

The current crisis in our nation is not just an economic crisis. It has far broader implications. The only way out of this crisis is to bring about a fundamental change. — Not the kind of change that accelerates the crisis, leading to ever more weakness, dependency, and state control, but a return to the once deeply-held values that made this country great: personal responsibility, individual sovereignty, and economic freedom.

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