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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What About the Jews?

Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and, after forty years in the desert, brought them to the Promised Land. In the sixth century B.C., the Babylonians overran their land, demolished their Temple, sold many Israelites into slavery, and drove the rest into exile. After the Baylonians were defeated by the Persians, many Jews returned and rebuilt the Temple. But, in the first century A.D., the Romans destroyed the entire city of Jerusalem and, once again, drove out all the Jews who weren’t sold into slavery. After being forced from their homeland for the second time, the Jewish people dispersed throughout the Middle East and what later became known as Europe.

Distrust of outsiders was common then and, wherever the exiled Israelites went, they were ostracized by the local population. European Jews were not permitted to own land, or to work in any agriculture-related field, or to hold any job that required membership in a trade guild. Well into the 19th century, they were forced by law to live in ghettos, and throughout the 19th century, they were victims of pogroms. In the 20th century, they were rounded up and sent to death camps by the Nazis, with the goal of ultimately exterminating the entire Jewish race.

But the Ashkenazi Jews were neither destroyed nor defeated. The ordeals they endured strengthened their resolve to not only survive, but to overcome and rise above their circumstances. They reacted to persecution and oppression by developing a culture of determined self-reliance and dedication to personal achievement, along with helping and encouraging each other. When Jewish children were prohibited from attending public schools, the Jews formed their own schools in the ghettos and tutored their children themselves. Being barred from trades and agriculture, the few professions open to them required skills in math and business, so education was a high priority.

After six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, many of the survivors left Europe never to return. The land that is now Israel was an arid desert then, undeveloped, and thought by many to be undevelopable. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, that entire area was divided up by the United Nations to establish the current Arab states. The area called the Palestinian Territory was set up as a British Mandate, as it was not a part of any nation, and had no government of its own. Because this area was sparsely populated, and because of the historical connection, it was determined to be the most viable place to establish a homeland for the displaced Jews. The founders of the new Israeli nation offered automatic citizenship to any who were living there who desired to stay, and cautioned that those who left would not be permitted to return and claim citizenship later. Many Arabs did stay and became full Israeli citizens, but many fled out of fear and ignorance, believing the propaganda spread by the neighboring Arab states.

The surrounding Arab states vehemently objected to having a Jewish state in their midst. They swore that “Israel will be wiped off the map” and “every Jew will be driven into the sea.” They immediately set about attacking Israel, bombarding it from every border, forcing the Israelis to defend their existence from the very start, even as they struggled to build a new nation. But the Jews had learned a hard lesson in Europe, and they understood what it meant to either fight or die. This time, they were prepared to fight back. They were already accustomed to hardship, and brought with them a culture of diligent perseverance. They relentlessly pursued their dream of establishing a land of freedom and Democracy in the middle of the unforgiving desert. Though continually beset with wars and terrorism, against seemingly insurmountable odds, they managed to build a new nation, with modern cities and a thriving agricultural and high tech-economy, where previously there was nothing but poverty and sand. But still, they’re surrounded by enemies on all sides, who seek the destruction of their nation, and they live in constant vigilance against terrorist attacks.

Not all the Jews who fled Europe went to Israel. A great many came to the United States. Though many had lost everything in the Holocaust, and came here with little or no possessions, they brought with them their culture of survival and self-sufficiency, their strong work ethic and belief in education as the road to progress. Those values served them well in this land of freedom and opportunity. Like every other immigrant group, they started out huddling together in ghettos. But the Jews had had enough of ghettos in Europe, and were quick to realize the value of assimilation. They had no sense of entitlement to anything from anybody, but were grateful for the opportunity to earn an honest living in whatever way they could, and to educate their children, and reap the rewards of their own efforts. They fit right in with the American ideal, eager to leverage every opportunity. They made sure their children got the best educations they could, and with each successive generation, they worked their way higher up the socio-economic ladder.

But still there are people who, out of envy or ignorance, resent the Jews for the very successes they fought so hard to achieve, and find excuses to dismiss their accomplishments or accuse them of having “unfair advantages.” Such is human nature.

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