February 29, 2008

February 29, 2008 | Commentary on

Land of the free and home of the victims

I wish I were a victim. Then people would give me things, and government would take care of me.

That's a dominant message on the presidential campaign trail, where some candidates preach that we have become a nation of victims, and that government is the only shining knight who can ride to our rescue.

Sadly, we've fallen to the point where this argument often works.

Using the politics of fear rather than hope, these candidates want to expand a failed war: the "War on Poverty," which has cost America trillions but produced no victory. They now are calling for a permanent surge of programs to cover the middle class - an expansion of the same failed strategy that has given us a permanent underclass that depends on government.

They hope to lure more Americans into this quagmire by convincing them that we are victims.

According to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, America is a place where the middle class is repressed.

Here's the heart of the Clinton argument, in her website's words:

Hillary has a plan to restore America's middle class. After six and a half years of Bush administration policies, the middle class is struggling to succeed in an economy that is leaving more and more Americans behind.

Income inequality has risen to the highest levels since 1929, and wages have stagnated. In the meantime, health care premiums and college tuition have skyrocketed, squeezing middle-class families who have largely relied on their home equity to make ends meet. The burgeoning problems in the housing market further threaten many middle-class families.

Obama describes it this way on his website:

While wages remain flat, the costs of basic necessities are increasing. The cost of in-state college tuition has grown 35 percent over the past five years. Health care costs have risen four times faster than wages over the past six years. And the personal savings rate is now the lowest it's been since the Great Depression.

For both candidates, the answer to all these problems is a rush of new government programs that makes Lyndon B. Johnson look like Ronald Reagan:

  • Having trouble making your mortgage payment? No problem. The government will bail you out - even if you lied about your income or job status to get the loan in the first place.
     
  • Although the Bush tax cuts relieved 44 million Americans from paying income taxes, now they'd be relieved of paying Social Security taxes. But they nevertheless get to collect payments (so long as they retire before Social Security goes bankrupt)!
     
  • If you can't afford college because government subsidies destroyed the incentives to control tuition costs, then the subsidies will be increased again.
     
  • The minimum wage will go way up, increasing the cost advantage of our overseas competitors, even as food stamps, housing subsidies and government cash giveaways like the EITC are also expanded.
     
  • Teachers who are failing their students will get larger paychecks.
     
  • Clinton even suggests that if you're not saving money, government will give you a check to open an account.

To pay for this, "oppressors" will be punished. Big Oil will pay more taxes (which will be passed on to consumers via still-higher prices). Moreover, "all Americans" will be "made to contribute their fair share" (meaning higher taxes for everyone the candidate defines as not being middle or lower class).

Convincing Americans that they need government to do all these things hinges on convincing them that they are victims in need of rescue. The strategy relies on clever misuse of statistics and an uncritical media to help the effort.

Several Heritage Foundation studies dispute those claims. One of them, by James Sherk, exposes how the deceit works. First, by ignoring non-cash employee benefits (such as health insurance, retirement plans, paid vacation days, etc.), wage growth is understated. Second, the wrong formulas are used when comparing wage growth to inflation. In fact, wage growth has matched America's growth in productivity. Another paper by Heritage's Paul Winfree notes that even "America's poorest citizens are doing better than they were 14 years ago."

And a celebrated study by Heritage's Robert Rector unmasks the deceptions used when poverty rates are discussed. As Rector observes, we have defined poverty "up" to the point that "[m]ost of America's 'poor' live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago."

The same tricks that are used to perpetuate failed anti-poverty programs are being used to promote new and expanded federal programs for the middle class. And those promise to be just as expensive, bureaucratic and unsuccessful as LBJ's "War on Poverty."

It's not enough for America's left to show sympathy for victims of real tragedies like 9/11 or Katrina. Now they must elevate every challenge into a crisis, provoking a sense of desperation that more and bigger government is the answer.

Before it's too late, Americans need to be reminded: A government big enough to give people everything they want is also big enough to take everything they've got.

Ernest Istook is a distinguished fellow in Government Relations.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in World Net Daily