Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Obama, the Left downsizing the American Dream
ILLUSTRATION: CHRIS MORRIS, CONTRIBUTING ARTIST
BY JOEL KOTKIN / Staff columnist
Barack Obama has always wanted to be a transformational president, and in this, at least, he has been true to his word. The question is what kind of America is being created, and what future does it offer the next generation.
President Obama’s great accomplishment, arguably, has been to spur the evolution of a society that formerly rested on individual and familial aspiration, and turn it into a more regulated and centralized regime focused on broader social and environmental concerns. This tendency has been made much stronger as the number of Americans, according to Gallup, who feel there is “plenty of opportunity ahead” has dropped precipitously – from 80 percent in 1997 to barely 52 percent today.
The shift away from the entrepreneurial model can also be seen in the constriction of loans to the small-business sector. Rates of business start-ups have fallen well below historical levels, and, for young people in particular, have hit the lowest levels in a quarter century. At the same time, the welfare state has expanded dramatically, to the point that nearly half of all Americans now get payments from the federal government.
In sharp contrast to the Bill Clinton White House, which accepted limits on government largesse, the newly emboldened progressives, citing inequality, are calling for more wealth transfers to the poorer parts of society, often eschewing the notion that the recipients work to actually improve their lives. The ever-expanding regulatory state has powerful backing in the media, on campuses and among some corporations. There is even a role model: to become like Europe. As the New York Times’ Roger Cohen suggests, we reject our traditional individualist “excess” and embrace, instead, Continental levels of material modesty, social control and, of course, ever-higher taxes.
Three ideas prevail in shaping today’s new politics: sexual liberation, racial redress and environmental determinism. The first notion has made rapid progress, in that gay marriage now is, rightfully, legal, and women are making steady gains across the employment spectrum. No matter how much Republicans fulminate in debates or on the campaign trail, this aspect of the basic progressive agenda has been largely accomplished, and is particularly accepted among the young.
The second major thrust of the reconstituted American Dream is the imposition of a regime of permanent racial redress. In contrast to assuring equal rights, the new drive is to guarantee similar results. In every aspect of life, from immigration and housing to school and work, “people of color,” which increasingly excludes Asians, will be categorized by race. This includes the call for “reparations” for African Americans and essentially open borders for undocumented immigrants.
This logic carried to extremes can be seen in the “disparate impact” rules promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and now blessed by the Supreme Court. Under this concept, any town can have its zoning and planning upended if the bureaucracy, or some plaintiffs, decide the town is too white, too Asian or too affluent to meet the standards of “social justice.” This could be extended down the line to every institution, from the workplace to the university. The new approach could be accurately characterized as affirmative action on steroids.
The Green Dilemma
When the United States took big steps in the 1960s to open its society, the economy was basically very strong, with lots of jobs, making initial accommodations to new entrants, minorities or women, much easier. But economic growth in the current “recovery” has been somewhat meager and wage gains all but nonexistent. Any attempt to extend the new version of “civil rights” protections – essentially taking opportunity away from the majority – would be far riskier at a time of economic torpor.
Worse still, the third major lodestone of current reigning ideology – environmentalism – increasingly tends to tilt against broad-based economic growth. Environmentalism, defined as a movement of conserving resources, extending parks and improving environmental quality could co-exist with an expanding economy, generating the funds to finance such improvements.
But today’s climate-change-focused environmentalism increasingly opposes economic growth per se, seeing in it a threat to the planet. For some people, the solution for the planet lies in depressing living standards by such steps as ratcheting up the cost of basic necessities, from energy to housing. Environmental advocates often work in concert with those who benefit from subsidies for everything from solar energy to transit lines, but the goal remains to constrain consumption and raise prices for such basics as housing and energy.
Yet these negative impacts don’t mean much to many green activists who, notes the Guardian’s George Monbiot, see the climate struggle as a way to “redefine humanity.” The target here is the economy itself, which remains driven largely by the desire for material wealth, upward mobility and support of families. Monbiot envisions a war against what he calls the “expanders” by the rational legions of green “restrainers” who will seek to curb their foes’ economic activities.
The celebration of economic stagnation is accepted openly among European greens who support an agenda of “degrowth.” It is also reflected in American calls for “de-development,” a phrase employed by President Obama’s Science Adviser John Holdren. The agenda, particularly in high-income countries, seeks to limit fossil fuels, raise energy prices, stem suburban development and replace the competive capitalism system with a highly regulated economy that favors designated “green’ energy industries over others.
what of future generations?
Constantly expanding pressures to accommodate both the environmentalist credo and the demands of protected identity groups may continue to shift older Americans to the political right. Forced to pick up the bills while enduring insults about their unconscionable “privilege,” it’s hard to see how they, for the most part, can become anything but more alienated by the progressive credo.
One worry for the older generation is their kids and, particularly, their grandchildren. Parents today generally see things getting worse for their offspring and grandchildren, with only 21 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, expecting things to get better for the new generation, compared with 49 percent in 2001. These sentiments may make older folks more solicitous about helping their own, but one doubts how much they desire to pour out their retirement savings to save someone else’s kids.
The biggest impact of the new politics, however, will be felt by the new generation. Some of their attitudes are certainly congenial to the progressive positions in such areas as interracial and gay marriage, and a certain commitment to greater social justice. Yet they might find they, too, need a little “justice” themselves, since their incomes, adjusted for inflation, are actually lower than those of their counterparts in 2000, or even 1980. They may be better educated than their predecessors, but it’s not quite paying off.
Take, for example, that more millennials are living with their parents than in predecessor generations. Many also are burdened with enormous student debt, which makes moving forward, for example, by starting a business or buying a house, more difficult. Most disturbingly, pessimism about the future is greatest among the youngest millennials, those still in high school.
This decline in prospects – as evidenced by consistently weak income and growth numbers – could, ultimately, reshape politics. Millennials may have different social attitudes than their parents, but that doesn’t mean they reject their parents’ aspirational dream, most notably to buy a house, preferably with some decent space. Although they have been far less able to achieve homeownership, surveys consistently show that most millennials want to own a house, get more space and seem increasingly willing to move to the suburbs, even the exurbs, to get it.
This will no doubt prove a disappointment for the highly influential cadre of generally wealthier, environmentally focused baby boomers, who celebrate millennials being satisfied as apartment renters – for life. Perhaps this is one reason that, in recent surveys, young people have been less likely to identify as “environmentalist” than previous generations.
Similarly, millennials may be very tolerant and welcoming of diversity, but one has to wonder how many – particularly those outside the protected classes – are likely to chafe at a regime that disfavors their own prospects. The fact that white millennials have been trending Republican should be seen by Democrats as something of a warning sign.
Ultimately, the future of American politics will not be determined by those mostly graying legions rallying to Donald Trump. It will be largely forged by young people seeking some way to transcend a weak, and largely unpromising, economy. They will be the ones to decide whether the aspirational model still fits America, or how far they want to embrace a new, more Europeanized version imposed from above.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange and the executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).
His most recent book is “The New Class Conflict” (Telos Publishing: 2014).