- - Tuesday, November 28, 2017


For Americans, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The stock market is booming, economic growth has jumped to 3 percent, and headline unemployment is near 4 percent. However, too many capable adults remain out of the work force or stuck in dead-end jobs — more reliant on government and private handouts to keep roofs over their heads, feed their children and obtain health care than at any time since the Great Depression.

Increasingly, Americans are divided between the coastal elites — those who attended selective universities and garner high-paying jobs in finance, technology, medicine, government and supporting services — and the rest of us.

When the Clintons and Democrats in Congress complain that most of the benefits of growth are going to folks at the top, they are surely right. Over the last two decades, median household incomes have been more or less stagnant but the inflation-adjusted costs for middle-class essentials like college, health care and housing have zoomed. Meanwhile, upper-income Americans have outwitted it all and become more prosperous and culturally distant from the great masses.

Many Americans are handicapped by mediocre educations whose skill content is more appropriate to the pre-digital age and more fundamentally, by upbringings in rural communities and small cities — places where good jobs have been laid waste by Asian imports, automation, farm consolidation and desperate immigrants. Or in urban ghettos — places where broken families and expectations for government largesse and corporate favors mirror the worst days of populism in Mexico prior to NAFTA.

Those communities share in common terrible social infrastructure — poor schools and transportation, shortages of physicians, lack of affordable high-speed connectivity and sometimes even no readily accessible supermarkets. And higher mortality rates for infants and older residents than parallel, wealthier urban cohorts.

It is easy for liberals to piously recite scripture from the theology of identity politics and cast invectives about racism and sexism but, in fact, many of the disadvantaged are white and male. Formerly blue collar and prosperous — or the children and grandchildren of the same — they have been riveted by globalization and technological change and neglected by an aloof urban elite.

For young people and the unemployed, specialized training that leads to a job is often unavailable. In affluent cities where the best opportunities beckon, housing is too expensive, support networks from churches and civic institutions too scarce and job licensing requirements too tough — all making relocation for better opportunities a cynical prescription.

Americans are having trouble most of all because the welfare state — easy access to Social Security disability pensions, food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies — have replace traditional middle-class norms with a dysfunctional culture that poses the toughest economic development challenge since the worst days of Appalachian poverty before the New Deal.

Whereas the pervasive American culture once affirmed the value of hard work, self-discipline, child-rearing in stable marriages, service to employers and community, and respect for authority, nowadays liberal academics, journalists, advocacy groups and apparatuses of government promote the exact opposite.

Poor performance in school or on the job is first blamed on discrimination. Universities and businesses are compelled to graduate and provide employment for the undeserving and unqualified or face federal lawsuits. Single parenthood is affirmed and subsidized and spousal desertion is enabled and even incentivized by no-fault divorce laws. Police are targets of ridicule and sometimes attack.

We see the worst results of these in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods among teenagers approaching adulthood with little idea about what it takes to become self-sufficient and who then emerge in their late-20s as encumbered and poverty-ridden as their parents.

Bernie Sanders’ universal health care, Hillary Clinton’s free college or Mark Zuckerberg’s government-guaranteed annual income wouldn’t fix these problems — those would only exacerbate them. Similarly, the Republican tax plan would instigate more growth, but it would mostly make the already prosperous more prosperous.

Answers lie in championing cultural change by conditioning entitlements to genuine efforts at self-improvement and compelling prosperous cities to be more welcoming to migrating Americans — as opposed to exploiting immigrants. And a frank national discussion about the values and lifestyles that foster personal success.

Those are not vote-getters but harsh measures and plain talk, and they are what’s needed to reunite America.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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