The Two Americas

Some time ago – around when the protests in Wisconsin were the top news story – I got into an argument with a Facebook acquaintance regarding public sector unions and whether or not they should exist and/or be granted collective bargaining rights. Eventually, after I had pointed out the vast demographic differences between a southern state like Texas and a northern state like Wisconsin and thereby shot down his claim that “right to work” states are the poorest performers academically, my opponent – who happens to be a public employee – came back with the following:

“Well, I certainly deserve a taxpayer-funded retirement plan more than a corporate CEO deserves his private jet.”

At that point, I was sorely tempted to ask, “Why?” I didn’t, of course, because I didn’t want to touch off a screaming match, but I think my question is a valid one. Why is it better to reach into someone else’s pocket so that you may have a worry-free retirement than it is to reach into your own pocket to pay for a jet? Why are you more “deserving” than the aforementioned CEO? Can you give me an itemized list comparing your contributions to society to that of our jet-setting businessman?

You see, I hail from an entirely different milieu than does my Facebook acquaintance. My concept of what people “deserve” by “right” is pretty limited. As far as I’m concerned, if you have a roof over your head, food in your belly, clothes on your back, and access to healthcare (and I deliberately did not say “health insurance” for that last one, as access is the real issue), then you’ve already gotten what you “deserve”. Retirement plans and other benefits of that nature are, in my view, luxuries; that you work in the public sector doesn’t give you the right to demand a free ride on the backs of private sector workers who, oh by the way, may already be contributing 100% to their own 401K’s.

Facebook conversations like the one above highlight for me where the front really is in our culture war. There are two Americas, but we are not divided into the “rich” and the “poor,” the “haves” and “have-nots,” or the “99%” and the “1%”. No — I would draw the line between those who are illegitimately holding their hands out and those who aren’t.

The hand-out class cannot be delineated according to traditional socioeconomic categories. It includes the women Mom saw years ago at the Office of Housing and Community Development who came in with perfectly manicured nails and perfectly coiffed hair to beg for rental assistance. It includes upper-middle-class “hipster” college students who’ve applied for SNAP cards to pay for their high-end organic produce instead of getting part-time jobs. It includes middle-class families who freely signed up for bad mortgages and are now pleading for rescue. It includes school teachers who throw public tantrums in the lobbies of their state houses whenever anyone suggests, mildly, that perhaps they should tighten their belts like everyone else. It includes rich folks who’ve built vacation homes in hurricane-prone areas and have consequently received multiple disaster pay-outs from the federal government. It includes the corporate welfare queens who lobby the government for subsidies, tax breaks, and bailouts. It includes all those bureaucrats in Washington who get richer and richer the more government grows. In short, the hand-out class includes anyone who is able-bodied yet feels entitled to a share of Other People’s Money. (Note: It doesn’t include wounded vets, the mentally disabled, or the gravely ill, who are in fact genuinely needy.)

On the other side of the line, meanwhile, are those who worked their butts off and played by the rules to get what they want. They were prudent enough to wait until they had the down-payment and the credit score necessary to secure a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage. When they were younger – or when times were tough – they took jobs they hated to keep food on the table. So far, they’ve never looked to the government for a hand to hold; so far, they’ve preferred to solve their own problems in their own way. But sadly, these people are beginning to feel like chumps. They’ve done everything right, and yet they get to watch the profligate get rescued by Uncle Sam time and time again. As Charles Sykes observes in his recently published book, A Nation of Moochers, we’re eventually going to reach the tipping point — the point at which many responsible folks will throw up their hands and say, “Screw it. Being good is getting us nothing.” And when that time comes, we’ll really be up crap creek without a paddle.

The hand-out class and the coastal elite – two groups that are certainly not mutually exclusive – make up Obama’s constituency — and that’s why his actions seem so contradictory. That’s why he can preach “jobs, jobs, jobs” and yet nix a job-creating pipeline for the benefit of his cronies. That’s why he castigates “millionaires and billionaires” — from whom he receives handsome campaign donations. He’s trying to play to a motley crew whose only shared trait is their willingness to cadge for government green — and that’s yet another reason why we need to vote him and his cadre out of office. The more we indulge the entitlement mentality, the worse off we’ll be.

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