Last summer, I wrote a column framed as a letter to a young Obama voter. It concluded: "You want policies that will enable you to choose your future. Obama backs policies that would let centralized authorities choose much of your future for you. Is this the hope and change you want?"
It seems that some young Obama voters have decided it isn’t. The Pew Research Center’s poll of the millennial generation, which voted 66 percent to 32 percent for Obama in 2008, found that they identify with Democrats over Republicans by only a 54 to 40 percent margin this year.
Perhaps they are coming to realize that the burdens the Obama policies are placing on the private sector economy are reducing their choices for the future. The stimulus package, Obamacare, higher taxes (when the health care plan kicks in and when the George W. Bush cuts for high earners expire), new environmental restrictions — they’re all job-killers and help to explain why a recovering economy isn’t producing many new jobs. Unemployment has been at 10 percent, rounded off, for six months now. Even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says it’s not going to decline a lot any time soon.
We’ve had such an economy before, in the second half of the 1930s, and Americans didn’t much like it. And not just because they weren’t making enough money. Because in such an economy it’s much harder to find satisfying work, work that can give you a sense of what American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, in his forthcoming book "The Battle," calls "earned success."
We get such satisfaction when we believe the work we are doing — in workplaces and in community activities and voluntary associations — is serving interests broader than our own. We’re making use of our talents, as great or limited as they may be, to make a contribution to society.
It’s hard to get that kind of satisfaction in this kind of economy. My relatives in Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 unemployment state, tell me a phrase they often hear is, "At least I’ve got a job." Not a satisfying job, not one that it makes full use of their talents and interests, not one that provides a sense of earned success. Just a job, a source of income. The kind of job in which you keep looking at the clock, counting the time before you can leave, counting the hours until the weekend comes.
The economy we enjoyed between 1983, when the Ronald Reagan tax cuts kicked in, and 2007, when the housing market collapsed, provided many more jobs in which people could gain such satisfaction. You could make a living as a master carpenter, as an actor or as a sewer of quilts because steady economic growth and low inflation meant expanded markets for custom goods. You could do work you really wanted to do. You didn’t have to settle for a data-entry or bolt-attaching job.
The economy we have now doesn’t do that. The programs of the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership will increase government’s share of the economy and will tend to choke off private sector economic growth. We’ve already lost 8 million private-sector jobs but no public sector jobs. We’ll probably create more public-sector jobs.
Yes, many public-sector jobs provide a real service to society and a sense of earned success. But too many don’t. Civil service rules, brittle organizational structures and public employee union contracts tend to stifle innovation and deter creativity.
For the ultimate example, see Steven Brill’s New Yorker article on the "rubber room" — where incompetent New York City teachers spend the day in an office, doing nothing but collecting $80,000 a year during a multiyear litigation process. People in the rubber room are making money, but they’re not earning success. They’re not doing anything that helps anyone else.
Democrats argue that their policies transfer money down the income scale and provide a safety net for individuals. But a nation with an ever-larger public sector and an inhibited-growth private sector is a nation with fewer openings for people who want work that will benefit others. Fewer opportunities for young people who want to choose their future, just as they choose their iPod playlists and Facebook friends. Fewer opportunities for people to choose their future. Change, maybe, but not much hope.