Victor Davis Hanson:
So it is that in 1935 poor people scraped and saved to cast a bronze plaque for their Depression-era new city hall, and in 2011 rather more affluent people ripped it off to melt it down for a layaway payment on some chrome rims or another round of meth.
Civilization ends when the pampered beneficiaries of the hard work of the now dead have the luxury of ignoring how hard it was — and is — to build shelter from the elements, to erect public buildings from scrub, to grow food and sprout farms from sage. Our contemporary criminals are protected from the elemental struggle and so have the indulgence to gnaw away at civilization’s veneer — and we, in our conspiratorial silence about them, likewise forgot that to keep still about the destruction of the work of others is to be complicit in it.
In 2008 the housing market collapsed due to Wall Street speculation in sub-prime paper, dishonest banks, and real estate agents pushing mortgages and houses, and to be fair, either stupid or greedy unqualified house buyers who, late to a doomed game of musical chairs, thought even they, as the music ended, could find cheap loans, buy a home, earn thousands in instant “equity,” borrow against it, and get “free” cash.
But the glue that held the entire amorphous mess together were federally-guaranteed loans backed by Freddie and Fannie, agencies that were guided by congressional politics and not market worries — and themselves skimmed by incompetent bureaucrats who ended up millionaires. Take away those multibillion-dollar guarantors, and the market would have precluded the unqualified, the Wall Street roguery would have been neutered, and the inevitable housing bust would have been serious rather than catastrophic.
Now we are supposed to be saved by Stimulus III. At nearly $500 billion in a single year, it may prove the largest single year payout in history. And we are assured it will not go to Wall Street, big banks, green companies, broke city and state governments, and “shovel ready” projects, but instead be “invested” in “work” programs fixing “infrastructure.”
But does anyone dare imagine that what got us into this mess in 2008 and kept us stuck through 2011 are these huge federal programs that distort market forces while piling up trillions of dollars in debt, destroying rather than enhancing personal initiative? Both employers and workers are losing incentives, the former better off are ossified in fear of losing something, the latter worse off calcified in assurances of getting something.
Maybe it is a fine and noble thing that the Obama administration vastly extended unemployment insurance. And, bravo, that nearly 50 million are now on food stamps. But a tragic voice from the past warns us that the more we diminish human incentives and guarantee a sort of cushioned permanent poverty, two things result: one, fewer people scramble to find productive work; and, two, envy sharpens as they begin to turn on their benefactors as being cheap, or mean-spirited in never giving quite enough to ensure parity with “them.” A cherry-red new truck or silver Toyota is never quite what others might have.
This is our progressive/liberal nation in decline.