Peter Pan vs. Wendy

Time magazine’s “Moneyland” ran an article back in March entitled “Being 30 and Living With Your Parents Isn’t Lame – It’s Awesome.”  The way things are going, that will serve nicely as an epitaph for Western civilization.

The premise of the article was that the growing cohort of young people compelled to live at home by the rotten economy aren’t particularly embarrassed or frustrated.  They’re roughly as satisfied with their situation as those who live on their own.  “The Great Recession has brought with it a reevaluation of the American Dream, and even whether a college degree is worth the money,” writes columnist Brad Tuttle.  “Now, the idea of living at home with your parents isn’t associated with failure or a lack of achievement. More likely, young adults living with their parents are thought of as victims of unfortunate circumstances, with plenty of good company.”

I noticed a link to this article flying through Twitter this morning, but sadly, I can’t remember who posted it – I owe someone a hat tip.  It was observed that only under a Democrat President does one see stories like this, repackaging grim indicators of economic collapse as surprisingly wonderful developments, with “high gas prices are awesome” pieces serving as the outstanding examples of the genre under President Barack Obama.

But the “living at home is awesome” story is also one of many signs that our era’s defining conflict, across all of Western civilization, is the War on Adulthood.  It’s Peter Pan versus Wendy, the eternal child versus the girl who understood that growing up is important… and Peter is about to run out of magic pixie dust.

This is more than merely a question of romanticizing adolescence through popular culture, although that can be seen as one of the War on Adulthood’s battlefronts.  If Wendy should begin winning her struggle against Peter Pan, Hollywood will be his final fortress.

There are also serious political and economic issues involved here.  ObamaCare famously classified 26-year-olds as “children.”  In an hour of fiscal crisis, with our tottering government about to collapse beneath the weight of its debt, and real unemployment stuck in double digits for years on end, the most important topic in America became the extension of subsidized student loan rates… to be financed by a job-killing tax on small businesses.

A serious effort has been under way for years to define “adolescence” the way ObamaCare does: a magical period of relatively carefree living stretching well into the third decade of life.  For many, this is viewed in tandem with extended retirement as a sign of general social wealth.  Short working lives are taken as a sign of national sophistication and prosperity.  Prolonged childhood, coupled with a long, comfortable dotage for as many people as possible, is regarded as a great achievement.

Perpetual adolescence is an attitude that goes far beyond programs targeted specifically at young people.  President Obama has long railed against the alternative to his unsustainable vision of cradle-to-grave welfare as “you’re-on-your-own economics,” declaring “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” as a supreme statement of collective values. 

You get to be his baby brothers and sisters under this model of society.  He sees government bailouts as a mechanism for sheltering his infantile subjects from the occasionally rough consequences of economic liberty.  He’s quite open about assailing private-sector investment risk as sinister “vampirism,” while his own wise “investments” to “win the future” are the height of virtue, no matter how badly they fail.  His re-election campaign has given up on all that “hope and change” optimism, peddling fear and infantile distractions instead.  Voters are frightened back into their cribs with tales of bogeymen, and given funny toys to amuse themselves until they drift back to sleep.

Above all else, Peter Pan’s defining characteristic is his serene ignorance of consequence.  Tomorrow will never come, the bills will never be past due, and the money will never run out.  Obama conducts himself in precisely the manner of an irresponsible teenager with a credit card, eager to show his friends a good time.  His Administration collectively responds to talk of paying the bills as a spoiled child would… as illustrated by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s infamous rejoinder to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan: “We’re not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours.”

Senate Democrats see absolutely no reason to pass a budget for our insolvent $3.6 trillion government.  Why should they?  What teenager likes to be hectored about his stupid “duties” and “responsibilities?”  Instead, liberals spend their days insisting that Mom and Pop America raise their allowance, through tax increases.  They no longer bother with the pretense that these tax increases would seriously address the budget crisis.  It’s all purely symbolic, a means for channeling the childish hatreds of class warfare.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Holman Jenkins notes the essential childishness of Barack Obama’s assault on private equity:

Here’s the real message of the Bain ads. The ads may invoke classic private-equity slurs like looter and stripper, but the real message is that private equity is exactly what it says it is: a bringer of efficiency and rationalization. Mr. Romney, the ads say, wants to take things away from you that he claims no longer are affordable; Mr. Obama, the ads say, will fight whoever tries to take things away. To the less sophisticated voter, the Obama message is a soothing “nothing has to change.” To the more sophisticated, President Obama proposes himself as the defender of every spending interest, never favoring a cut, always pushing for higher taxes.

Look at Europe. Look at California. This strategy can work electorally. As policy, it may be unbelievable, irrational and misleading—like Gov. Jerry Brown clinging to his bullet train. But it makes a kind of political sense.

Mr. Brown’s politics in fact are worth studying. His state is flirting with fiscal collapse. Businesses and workers are fleeing its high taxes. Yet he defends a perfectly senseless plan to build a $68 billion high-speed rail to nowhere. His message to his state’s spending interests: “I’m your guy. No compromise.” As in Greece, where austerity has meant the private sector shrinks but the government doesn’t, so in California, if Mr. Brown has anything to say about it.

That’s a perfect snapshot of the increasingly bitter struggle between Peter Pan and Wendy.  Peter promises that everybody will get cake, while the baker will be forced to sit on his growing pile of invoices forever.  Socialism is always about focused benefits and diffuse costs.  The dependency class can be relied upon to fight for its concrete, indispensible benefits, while the muddled horde of tax serfs won’t complain about adding a few more zeroes to some abstract tally of the national debt with comparable vigor.  Some demand much, while everyone sacrifices a little.  The only concession to reality made by the American Left is a slowly mounting campaign to convince the Little People to be satisfied with a reduced standard of living, because only a greedy planet-wrecking pig would want more.  A teenager can fool himself into thinking that kind of racket can run forever.

It can’t, of course, and we are drawing very close to the moment when our culture of arrested adolescence finally gets arrested for abusing Uncle Sam’s credit cards.  Opportunity and responsibility are the business of adults, while “hope” that some wise and powerful benefactor will “rescue” you is the dream of a child.  Adults look forward to what they can build, while children anticipate what they will be given.  Adults make decisions and take risks, while children await orders from their minders. 

Adulthood is often frightening, and often exhilarating.  It is also, as Wendy tried to explain to Peter Pan, inevitable.  It’s always harder to grow up if you wait until you absolutely have to.